'Promise of a new normal': NJ long-term care facilities begin to receive COVID vaccines

Michael L. Diamond
Asbury Park Press

OLD BRIDGE — New Jersey began vaccinating long-term care residents and staff on Monday in a bid to build a firewall against the coronavirus and protect a group that has been devastated by the disease.

With Gov. Phil Murphy looking on at the Roosevelt Care Center in Old Bridge, 103-year-old Mildred Clements, now in her second pandemic, and nurse Esther Moodey were among the first to get vaccinated.

"The vaccine brings hope and optimism about the future and promise of a new normal," Moodey said.

Charles Bianco is vaccinated by CVS pharmacist James Kee. Residents and staff receive vaccination for Covid-19 at the Roosevelt Care Center in Old Bridge, N.J. December, 28, 2020

Moodey spoke at a press conference that kicked off a vaccine program for New Jersey's 655 long-term care facilities. The program was delayed by a week after the state missed a federal deadline when filling out its application.

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It provided a ray of hope at the end of a bleak year. Nearly half of the state's 16,685 confirmed COVID deaths have been in long-term care facilities, and the Murphy Administration has scrambled to develop procedures to better contain the disease.

They hoped the vaccine would be the best defense.

"This program will hopefully be the most effective step in our initiatives to protect the most vulnerable members of our long-term care communities," Health Commissioner Judith M. Persichilli said.

Roosevelt Care Center has been waiting for a chance to turn the corner. The facility has 170 residents and 200 employees, and it, like other long-term care facilities was struck by the disease.

Its outbreak began March 27, leading to the deaths of three or four residents before the  facility managed to control the infection, Bentzy Davidowitz, the administrator, said.

Nurse manager Esther Moodey receives the vaccine from CVS pharmacist James Kee. Residents and staff receive vaccination for Covid-19 at the Roosevelt Care Center in Old Bridge, N.J. December, 28, 2020

The restrictions, however, disrupted daily life. Residents who once saw their family members in person each day had to resort to FaceTime and Zoom. 

CVS, which along with Walgreens has partnered with the federal government, sent six pharmacists, multiple technicians and 400 doses of the Pfizer vaccine to Roosevelt Care Center. They will return in three weeks to administer a second dose, Davidowitz said.

All but 20 residents signed up for the vaccine, and Davidowitz said he hoped the rest would follow once they see it is safe.

"It's been a rough couple months, but we're hoping this is the light at the end of the tunnel," he said.

Governor Phil Murphy bumps elbows with resident Charles Bianco before he was vaccinated. Residents and staff receive vaccination for Covid-19 at the Roosevelt Care Center in Old Bridge, N.J. December, 28, 2020

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New Jersey is aiming to vaccinate 70% of its population, or 4.7 million, in six months, starting with front-line health care workers and long-term care residents and staff by the end of January.

It is an ambitious goal that got off to a slow start. The state received 20% fewer doses of the vaccines made by Pfizer and Moderna than it expected. 

And it began offering vaccines at long-term care facilities a week later than other states because the Health Department missed a deadline by a day to apply for the federally funded program.

Murphy said the state wanted to include more facilities than traditional long-term care centers in its application with the federal government such as homes for people with developmental disabilities. It took longer to complete the paperwork.

As of Monday, CVS and Walgreens were scheduled to visit 291 long-term facilities to vaccinate more than 83,000 residents and staff, state officials said.

The next step: Setting up six giant vaccination sites, along with 200 satellite sites, with staff to administer the vaccine and technology to track patients.

The logistics are likely to be expensive. In the latest coronavirus relief package, Congress allocated $8 billion for vaccine distribution, but it isn't clear how much New Jersey will receive.

"We'll use every dime coming our way, I promise you, but as a general matter, it's not enough," Murphy said.

On a damp day in Old Bridge outside of the Roosevelt Care Center, officials said the vaccine program is starting to ramp up.

Julianne Strus, for one, said the vaccine couldn't come soon enough.

Strus, 35, of Monroe Township, is a certified nursing assistant with two sons who are immunocompromised.

She has spent her days trying to keep residents occupied with arts and crafts and lots of Bingo, knowing they can only see their families if they make an appointment to meet them outside.

When she gets home, her sons know not to immediately hug her. She puts her scrubs in the laundry, showers and washes her hands up to her elbows before getting on with her day.

She took the vaccine and said she felt a little safer being around her children.

"I feel hopeful there's an end to this pandemic," Strus said. "I feel like we're going to go into the battle and win it." 

Michael L. Diamond is a business reporter who has been writing about the New Jersey economy for more than 20 years. He can be reached at mdiamond@gannettnj.com.