The journey is underway to make sure every eligible person can receive the COVID-19 vaccine.
On January 21, 2020, the United States announced its first confirmed case of COVID-19. The milestone is a somber reminder of those who lost their lives to the virus and how much our daily lives have changed.
A year later, Atlantic Health System President and Chief Executive Officer Brian Gragnolati expressed optimism in the promise of the vaccine — a “light at the end of the tunnel” — in a Community Conversation on Facebook Live.
Gragnolati was joined by Kevin Lenahan, chief financial and administrative officer for Atlantic Health System, to share information about COVID-19 vaccine distribution and what’s being done to increase capacity.
“We have two vaccines ... developed within nine months ... and they're incredibly safe and they work really well. It is nothing short of a miracle," Gragnolati said.
At the same time, he acknowledged the challenge of distribution.
What are the challenges of the vaccine rollout?
In the absence of a federal plan, states were given the responsibility to coordinate vaccine distribution, Gragnolati said. As of the live event, Atlantic Health System had vaccinated more than 25,000 people. However, Gragnolati said, he was concerned about the vaccine rollout.
"We've got to do better in this regard as a country. We've got to continue to collaborate with our partners at the state, but we have to have a plan."
He described the new federal plan as a commonsense approach to vaccinations, testing and contact tracing. Gragnolati expressed hope that with greater coordination at the state and federal level, the public health crisis could be brought under control. The pandemic is a global problem that will only be controlled when there are multiple ways to access the vaccine across populations, Gragnolati said.
In the meantime, Atlantic Health System will continue to vaccinate as many people as possible.
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Where are vaccines currently available?
Kevin Lenahan explained that Atlantic Health System is ready to distribute COVID-19 vaccines at eight sites, including their medical centers and other community locations. The mega center at the former Sears in the Rockaway Townsquare Mall has been established in partnership with the county, the state, the National Guard and Atlantic Health System.
The mega center alone has the capacity to administer 2,400 vaccinations a day, Lenahan said. At the time of the live event, the center administered 300 to 400 vaccine doses a day, based on availability of the vaccine. He projected that, as the supply of the vaccine increases, the mega center will be able to serve over 15,000 people per week.
Finally, Gragnolati mentioned that, in the future, Atlantic Health System plans to deliver vaccines at pharmacies and via a mobile van service that will assist those who can't easily access the current sites.
How has the supply of the vaccine impacted appointment availability?
The two vaccines available, from Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech, have different requirements for storage and freezing, so different sites must have specific capabilities and facilities, Lenahan explained.
Gragnolati added that because the supply of the vaccine is limited, the State of New Jersey initially prioritized health care workers, caregivers in assisted living facilities and other front-line health care workers.
In recent weeks, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended much wider eligibility criteria, which have been adopted by the states. In New Jersey, that’s led to almost 5 million more people becoming eligible, including those who are 65 years and older, those with certain medical conditions, and, most controversially, smokers. These additions have put pressure on demand without a commensurate increase in supply.
How do I sign up for a vaccine appointment?
Go to atlantichealth.org/CovidVaccine to sign up for appointment alerts. You will be contacted when appointments are available, based on the supply of the vaccine and your eligibility. It is important to fill out all of the information on the online form and be sure to click the "submit" button at the bottom of the page when the form is complete. All individuals seeking a vaccine should fill out the form separately.
When and how will I be notified about an appointment?
Once a user clicks the "submit" button, an email will be sent to notify you that your form has been received. Lenahan explained that when you sign up for an alert, you will be placed on a list for all the Atlantic Health System vaccination sites. When there are openings, those who are eligible, based on state criteria, will receive notifications. He added that Atlantic Health System is working as fast as it can to vaccinate as many people as possible.
"You've got to have a little patience with us. We're doing the best we can," said Lenahan.
The incredibly limited supply of vaccine prevents us from offering more appointments. To protect the safety of our team and those who want to receive the vaccine, we are only offering appointments when we can guarantee a dose is available.
Are there other ways to sign up for an appointment?
Atlantic Health System is in the process of setting up a call center as an option for those who are unable to access the online system. In addition, the New Jersey Department of Health has a separate site, unaffiliated with Atlantic Health System, to register for the vaccine at covidvaccine.nj.gov >
Why can't people simply show up at a vaccination site if they know they are eligible for a vaccine?
Lenahan explained that in order to have a safe and orderly process for both those receiving and those distributing the vaccine, appointments are necessary. The limited supply of the vaccine also dictates how many people can be served on any particular day. Doses are allocated by the State of New Jersey, and organizations such as Atlantic Health System must follow rigid protocols in their distribution. Both Lenahan and Gragnolati recognized the frustration of people who want the vaccine and are hopeful that, as the supply increases, the process will become more effective.
Will I need to get the COVID-19 vaccine annually?
Because the virus is so new, there is no long-term data to determine if an individual will need an annual COVID-19 vaccination.
Which vaccines are administered at Atlantic Health System sites?
Atlantic Health System has access to both the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines. The Moderna vaccine can be given to eligible individuals aged 18 years and older. The Pfizer vaccine can be given to eligible individuals aged 16 years and older. If you initially receive the Moderna vaccine, your second dose will also be from Moderna. Similarly, if you initially receive the Pfizer vaccine, your second dose will be from Pfizer.
Lenahan noted that every person who receives an initial dose will be given an appointment for a second dose at the same site.
Many people are frustrated with the pace of the vaccination rollout. When will this process run more smoothly?
"I completely understand the frustration, and I hear it across the country," said Gragnolati.
He explained that even though a safe and effective vaccine was developed in record time, there was no large-scale plan for production and distribution. States were given the responsibility to determine an equitable and fair system based on the limited supply of the vaccine.
Gragnolati reiterated his view that the challenge can be met with organization and advocacy. He said officials in New Jersey are working to increase the supply.
"The breakdown has been at the federal level where we can't get a predictable supply of vaccine. Again, we now have a plan under the new administration. We're going to keep doing what we're doing here in New Jersey until we begin to see the federal plan change. I know that our Governor is spending a lot of time with the ... president's team members overseeing this to help shape how this is going to be executed."
Lenahan projected that, with enough supply, Atlantic Health System could deliver 8,000 to 10,000 doses of the vaccine per day.
In the meantime, what can we do to prevent the spread of COVID-19?
Until enough of the population is vaccinated, we still need to wear masks, wash our hands and maintain social distance. Sign up for an appointment to receive the vaccine when you are eligible. Lenahan also reminded people that even if you receive a vaccination, you still need to be responsible and wear a mask.
Where can I find more information?
Please visit atlantichealth.org/covidvaccine for more information.