December 28, 2020, marks a day of celebration as the state’s most vulnerable population – those living and working in long-term care facilities – started to receive the COVID-19 vaccination.
“It’s a day when significant scientific accomplishments of two vaccines available in less than a year should be rejoiced, and a start of a new year in our journey of our hope against this virus,” State Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli said.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration gave emergency use approval to the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine on Dec. 11 and the Moderna vaccine on Dec. 18.
Persichilli, along with Gov. Phil Murphy, witnessed members of a local CVS Health Pharmacy team administer the first doses of the Pfizer vaccine to enthusiastic recipients at the Roosevelt Care Center in Old Bridge in the early morning hours of Dec. 28.
The recipients included residents Mildred Clements, 103, Rosemary Connolly, 92, and Charles Bianco, 87; along with staff members at the nursing home, Esther Moodey, a registered nurse and subacute unit manager, Stella Jeron, a registered nurse and assistant director of nursing, and Jill Strus, who works as an accountant.
“I got vaccinated because I want my family to be here with me to celebrate my next birthday,” Clements said.
Connolly said she looks “forward to embracing my family once again.”
And Bianco said he got vaccinated because he has “a lot to live for and this vaccine makes it possible.”
Moodey said 2020 has been a challenging year for all in health care on many levels.
“During the first wave of this pandemic, we battled through exhaustion, uncertainty, sadness and fear. We saw the numbers rise, fall and rise again,” she said. “All these months later we continue to work tirelessly to protect and care for our vulnerable residents and help them stay connected.”
As frontline healthcare workers and as mothers and fathers, daughters and sons, sisters and brothers, friends and caretakers, Moodey said they need to stay healthy for everyone’s sake.
“I’m thankful to God for the COVID-19 vaccine and honored to be the first staff member in our facility to receive it today in solidarity with colleagues in other long-term care facilities around New Jersey,” she said. “The vaccine brings hope and optimism about the future and promise of a new normal.”
After the vaccinations, Persichilli and Murphy addressed the public in attendance. They were joined by Moodey, CVS Health Regional Director Kat Kingston; State Senator Sam Thompson (R-12); Middlesex County Board of Chosen Freeholder Director Ronald G. Rios; H. James Polos, executive director of the Middlesex County Improvement Authority; Old Bridge Mayor Owen Henry; and Andrew Aronson, director of Nursing Home Advocates of New Jersey.
“This is a great example how the fight against this [novel coronavirus] has united both public and private sectors, folks from across the aisle on common ground,” Murphy said. “What we’re witnessing here in New Jersey is happening in dozens of other states across the nation. Long-term care facilities across the entire nation and certainly here have been crushed by COVID-19. They have borne an outsized burden of this pandemic and as I have said many times while we know we are not alone given the toll on long-term care residents and staff nationwide, we’re not going to just sit back and be part of the pack, we’re going to break out, move forward and provide solutions that conserve as national models.”
Murphy said the state took a proactive risk to broaden their vaccination application to include long-term care and congregate living facilities. The governor said the few day wait to administer the vaccine allowed the state to enter the Federal Pharmacy Partnership for Long-Term Care Program, a partnership between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), CVS and Walgreens to facilitate on-site COVID-19 vaccination services.
Through the federal program, New Jersey already has 291 long-term care facilities scheduled and more than 83,000 residents and staff slated to receive vaccinations through the beginning of February, with more sites to be added in the coming weeks.
There are 655 long-term care facilities in the state.
“We have implemented both through direct action and partnership with our legislative partners countless short, medium and long-term solutions to the systemic shortcomings this pandemic has exposed and laid bare,” Murphy said. “Our goal has consistently been to not just meet the current challenges, but to ensure both high quality care and the safety of residents and staff going forward. That is why seeing these vaccines being administered here today is such a tremendous moment, it is a big step toward that goal. Vaccination is not just about ending this pandemic, it’s a step towards a stronger and more resilient future, a step towards allowing residents here to once again be able to see and hold their loved ones and that day will come.”
Persichilli said in New Jersey and across the nation, the COVID-19 virus has had a devastating effect on residents and staff in long-term care facilities.
“This virus continues to be unrelenting,” she said. “The virus continues to enter our facilities with over 400 reporting outbreaks. The issues we faced in long-term care challenged us at the department to examine ways to improve the resiliency of this industry.”
The state Department of Health (DOH) has developed a comprehensive testing plan for staff and residents and recently conducted a pilot to study the incidents of asymptomatic spread in long-term care facilities. Approximately 2.7 million tests have been performed in facilities across the state.
In May, the state issued an executive directive requiring all facilities to post their outbreak plans including infection prevention, cohorting and isolating practices. The state also has provided $78 million to improve the wages of certified nurse aides. In October, Murphy signed bills requiring staff to patient ratios and policies to prevent social isolation during an outbreak. The DOH has established the office of long-term care resiliency and set up an emergency operation center. The center serves as a centralized command, communication center to immediately respond to any issues and challenges from the second wave of the virus.
Additionally, the department has mandated every facility have an infection preventionist on staff and also report staff illnesses and staff quarantine statuses.
“The introduction of this vaccine will now supplement our responses to this deadly virus,” Persichilli said. “Overall in New Jersey we hope to vaccinate 70% of the eligible adult population in a six month period. Yes, that is an aspirational and aggressive, but needed, goal. In the meantime we must all remain vigilant.”
The residents and staff at Brighton Gardens of Edison shared similar sentiments felt at Roosevelt Care Center as they started to receive the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccination through CVS Health on Dec. 28.
“We’re all smiles today,” said Tracey Borges, executive director of Brighton Gardens of Edison, as she geared up for the vaccine. “We’re so grateful for the strength and positivity our residents have shown over the past nine months and for the support and words of encouragement we’ve received from our families during a very challenging year.”
Borges said she received the vaccine so she “can help protect this community, as well as my family and friends from this virus.”
Data from a recent survey of more than 8,000 Sunrise residents and families revealed 92% of respondents will probably or definitely receive the vaccine for themselves or their loved one.
Sue Coppola, a registered nurse and chief clinical officer for Sunrise Senior Living, which operates Brighton Gardens of Edison, said the vaccination process is the beginning of their journey back to normalcy. She said the journey has included an education component through the CDC and local health departments leading up to the approval of the vaccinations for their residents and staff members. It also includes support of any concerns residents and staff may have.
As of Dec. 10, Sunrise operates 336 communities in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. The communities in Middlesex and Monmouth counties include Sunrise of East Brunswick, Brighton Gardens of Edison, Sunrise of Lincroft, Sunrise of Shrewsbury and Sunrise of Wall.
CVS Health Regional Director Kat Kingston said CVS Health is a team of health care professionals made up of pharmacists, nurse practitioners and license pharmacy technicians.
“Our work here in New Jersey administering this vaccine has been the culmination of months of internal planning and really demonstrates how the private sector can use its expertise to help us solve some of our most critical challenges,” she said. “We are really grateful for the herculean efforts of everyone that’s been involved and especially our healthcare professionals that are deployed here today and throughout the country to start to bring some peace of mind to these long-term care facilities residents and staff.”
Further, Kingston said, “Vaccinating one of our most vulnerable populations is the latest milestone in our multi-faceted pandemic response, which has included testing more than 10 million people for the virus since March.”
“Availability and administration of the COVID- 19 vaccines will bring us one step closer to overcoming the most significant health challenge of our entire life-time,” she said.
Murphy said officials believe the general public will have access to the vaccinations by April and May.
Contact Kathy Chang at firstname.lastname@example.org