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N.J. relaxes crowd restrictions as COVID-19 cases drop, vaccinations rise; providers resume Johnson & Johnson shots

The resumption of Johnson & Johnson vaccines in Pa. and N.J. allows providers to accelerate focus on vulnerable populations and has them hoping to combat hesitancy.

Clifton Jackson, of Willingboro, receives a dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine from Josh Redlich, a nursing student at Rutgers, at the Mickle Towers housing complex in Camden on April 2.
Clifton Jackson, of Willingboro, receives a dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine from Josh Redlich, a nursing student at Rutgers, at the Mickle Towers housing complex in Camden on April 2.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

More people will be allowed at some indoor and outdoor gatherings in New Jersey next month, Gov. Phil Murphy announced Monday, saying he would increase crowd-size limits thanks to dropping coronavirus case numbers and a steady pace of vaccinations.

Meanwhile, vaccine providers in Pennsylvania and New Jersey were resuming the use of the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which will allow them to accelerate efforts to reach vulnerable populations. At the same time, they are assessing whether the 11-day pause on the shot has exacerbated public hesitancy about getting immunized.

Stressing that all three approved coronavirus vaccines are safe and effective, Pennsylvania and New Jersey health officials also said residents can choose either J&J or the two-dose Moderna or Pfizer vaccines. Bucks, Chester, Montgomery, and Delaware Counties were all restarting clinics or mobile vaccination initiatives with J&J this week, as was Philadelphia, where city officials were also in talks with the federal government about whether the vaccine might be deployed at the Pennsylvania Convention Center and Esperanza mass clinics.

“It remains the best vaccine for people who have difficulty scheduling or keeping second dose appointments,” said Health Department spokesperson James Garrow. “It’s also good for people who want to be fully vaccinated as soon as possible.”

New coronavirus cases were declining in Pennsylvania, which was averaging about 3,800 new reported infections a day, according to an Inquirer analysis. That’s a drop of 23% from last week, when the rate of new infections peaked over 5,000 per day. In Philadelphia, the city health commissioner said last week he was hopeful the rate of new cases was beginning to plateau after increases.

New Jersey’s reported case counts have plummeted since the beginning of the month, when the state was adding more than 3,500 and sometimes more than 4,000 cases per day. State officials added 1,935 new cases a week ago, 2,479 cases on Friday, and 1,247 on Monday. Hospitalizations have dropped by 25% since the start of April, Murphy said.

The Garden State’s changes to crowd limits will take effect May 10. Indoor private gatherings, like weddings and school proms, can increase to 50% of venue capacity or a maximum of 250 people. That’s up from 35% of capacity with a maximum of 150 people. Dance floors can also return, with masks and social distancing.

Outdoor events can go from 200 to a maximum of 500 people, and outdoor venues with 1,000 fixed seats or more can welcome up to 50% capacity provided attendees from different groups can distance. Outdoor carnivals and fairs also can operate at 50% capacity.

Murphy signaled that the state’s limits would relax further as the spread of the virus declines.

“Everyone should look at this 500-person limit as a new floor, but that requires all of us to do the right thing, including get vaccinated,” he said.

Johnson & Johnson restarts

As providers restart Johnson & Johnson inoculations, much of the focus turns to vaccinating people who haven’t been able to access shots, and addressing any vaccine hesitancy.

Acting Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Alison Beam on Monday amended an order to require providers to, at minimum, schedule appointments for people who are homebound and seeking vaccines. Gov. Tom Wolf said the commonwealth remains committed to getting shots to people who are homebound and ensuring the most vulnerable Pennsylvanians aren’t left behind now that everyone 16 and older can get shots.

“The vaccines are the best way forward to protect you, your loved ones, and neighbors from the virus, and get back to their life and the things they may have missed over this past year,” said a health department spokesperson.

Along with clinics — Chester County plans to open two new ones that will tap into its J&J supply — the resumption of the single-dose shot allows the counties to forge ahead on plans to reach vulnerable and unvaccinated people. Bucks County is also using the vaccine for its mobile vaccination teams for homeless and homebound people, which are starting this week, and Montgomery County’s mobile outreach was resuming.

The collar counties had about 20,000 J&J shots each in reserve. In total, Pennsylvania providers had about 138,000 doses available to use statewide, a Department of Health spokesperson said Monday. The state also has some doses in its own supply that are set to be used for initiatives such as vaccinating food and agriculture workers. As of Monday, the state did not expect any additional J&J doses to be delivered this week.

» READ MORE: ‘The challenge to come’: Vaccinations are open, but demand is down, turning Pa. and Philly’s focus to fighting hesitancy

The pause on the vaccineprompted by six cases of a rare clotting disorder in women who had received J&J vaccines — was lifted by federal officials Friday evening after an advisory committee determined the benefits of the vaccine far outweighed the very small risks.

People who get the J&J shot are advised to get medical help immediately if they develop severe headache, abdominal pain, leg pain, or shortness of breath within three weeks of their vaccination.

The halt in J&J also has prompted concern about even greater vaccine skepticism. Fewer than a quarter of unvaccinated Americans said they’d get the J&J shot, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted last week, and more people said they believed the two other vaccines were safer than the J&J.

“We’re worried that people will worry that the one-in-a-million chance of experiencing the clotting issues identified with this vaccine will cause people to refuse taking it,” said Garrow. “The risk of getting sick or dying from COVID is so much higher than the risk of getting sick or dying from this vaccine.”

Staff writers Laura McCrystal and Rob Tornoe contributed to this article.