Top New Jersey and Pennsylvania officials criticized the federal government’s rollout of the coronavirus vaccine on Monday, saying the president’s administration hasn’t delivered enough doses and set unrealistic expectations about how many people could be vaccinated.
Touring a new vaccination “mega-site” in South Jersey, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy and state Senate President Stephen Sweeney, both Democrats, expressed frustration with the federal government for delivering fewer than the expected number of doses to the state.
“They’re not paying attention,” Sweeney said of President Donald Trump’s administration. “It’s not this administration’s priority, obviously. ... It’s not [the Murphy] administration’s fault, it’s Washington’s fault.”
In Pennsylvania, Health Secretary Rachel Levine again knocked the federal government for suggesting 20 million people would be vaccinated by the end of 2020, saying that had raised false hope. (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar told the Washington Post that his team had meant 20 million vaccine doses would be available and had “accidentally” created the unrealistic expectations.)
The comments came amid criticism about the number of doses that have been delivered to the states but reportedly remain unused — largely due to logistical challenges, The Inquirer reported this weekend.
“Everybody will get vaccinated. We will have enough,” New Jersey Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli said Monday. “It’s just a matter of time.”
Both states were making plans for accelerating inoculations. Last week, Pennsylvania stepped up the pace of vaccine doses given out over the previous week, and about 300 sites have been set up around New Jersey, waiting to administer shots.
Vaccine providers in Pennsylvania can inoculate members of the second priority group — people 75 and older and essential frontline workers — if they don’t have enough interest from currently eligible health-care workers, Levine said.
“We absolutely don’t want them to waste vaccines,” she said. “We want them to administer them to whoever is in front of them at that moment.”
State officials were still discussing when to formally open vaccines up to the second priority group, which Levine said would occur “soon,” and what the process for that rollout will be.
The health secretary said it remains to be seen whether a postholiday spike in cases is taking hold in the commonwealth, partly because new case reports are always lower over weekends. But the state, like the nation, is still seeing an increase in coronavirus-related fatalities: Since Jan. 1, the deaths of 1,978 Pennsylvanians have been reported.
Nationwide, the first 10 days of 2021 were among the deadliest yet, with more than 28,000 related deaths, according to an Inquirer analysis of data from Johns Hopkins University. The country is now averaging at least 3,240 coronavirus deaths a day.
Jonathan Holloway, president of Rutgers University, announced Monday that he had tested positive for the virus after being exposed by someone in his household. Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, a Democratic congresswoman from the Trenton area, announced she also had the virus after sheltering with other lawmakers at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday during the insurrection by Trump supporters.
Watson Coleman said in a statement Monday that she believed she was exposed “during protective isolation” in a crowded room where some House members refused to wear masks; Congress’ attending physician said a person in the room had the virus.
Postholiday surge not yet clear
Levine said health officials remained “very concerned” about possible case increases, especially after the end of last week saw two days with more than 10,000 new cases a day for the first time since the peak of December’s surge.
There was a good sign, however: The percentage of coronavirus tests coming back positive has been declining steadily since the seven-day period ending Dec. 10, falling from a peak of 16.2% to 14.4% on Thursday.
Virus-related hospitalizations have also slightly declined since last month, with about 5,201 people being treated in the commonwealth’s hospitals as of Monday.
Pennsylvania on Monday reported 5,338 new cases and 83 deaths, plus 7,506 cases and 103 deaths recorded Sunday. Philadelphia announced 1,490 cases, representing test results reported since Friday, and seven deaths.
In New Jersey, the rate of virus transmission increased slightly, which Murphy said was likely a result of holiday gatherings. The state reported 5,042 cases and 51 deaths.
‘We must show patience’
The vaccine “mega-site” that opened in New Jersey on Friday will vaccinate about 1,000 people per week — and eventually up to 2,400 people a day, Murphy said Monday as he showed off the sprawling facility at Rowan College of South Jersey. Dozens stood outside lined up for shots before 10 a.m.
Only health-care workers, residents of long-term care homes, police, and firefighters are cleared to receive the vaccination so far, and Murphy applauded as he watched several men and women receive injections. He elbow-bumped and thanked staff members who were administering the shots at folding tables set up inside part of Rowan’s college center that’s normally used as a cafeteria.
More than 214,000 people have now gotten the vaccine in New Jersey, and the state added a public vaccination tracker to its COVID-19 website.
As members of the public preregister on the state’s website to be alerted when they’re eligible to get their shot, state officials said there was no sign of widespread fraud, though sporadic attempts at “line-jumping” had taken place. Most who signed up were truthful about the priority group they were in, and others may have been confused, Persichilli said.
“We are trusting people to do the right thing here,” she said. “I get many, many emails a day from people really begging to get the vaccine, and I don’t blame them. But we just have to try to do it in an orderly fashion.”
In Pennsylvania, Levine said delays from vaccine providers in reporting the number of people inoculated so far could be up to several days. She acknowledged the state wanted to improve its pace.
“We all need to do better and continue to roll out the vaccine and get vaccines into arms,” she said.
As of Monday, at least 310,000 first doses have been administered in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania. That number the previous week, three weeks after the rollout began, was about 206,400 — indicating the pace of inoculation has increased.
Those numbers don’t include first and second doses provided to nursing home residents and staff by CVS — more than 58,000 so far — and 21,000 second doses administered in Pennsylvania.
In total, Pennsylvania has received 827,300 doses of the two-shot Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. More are on the way.
“I know it is really challenging to have patience, but we must show patience as the amount of vaccine available to Pennsylvania is still extremely limited,” Levine said. “And it will take several months before there is enough vaccine for everyone.”
Staff writers Rob Tornoe, Jonathan Tamari, Susan Snyder, and Laura McCrystal contributed to this article.
This article has been updated to reflect Pennsylvania’s most recent inoculation numbers.