A handful of New Jersey hospitals could receive batches of the new COVID-19 vaccines in a matter of days, Gov. Phil Murphy said Friday.
The news of the selected hospitals comes as the nation prepares for one of the most massive and complicated vaccine distribution campaigns in American history.
Six hospitals were chosen, according to a report by NorthJersey.com: AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center in Atlantic City, Cooper University Hospital in Camden, Hackensack University Medical Center, Morristown Medical Center, Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick and University Hospital in Newark.
There are currently two vaccines on the way: one by Moderna and another by Pfizer. Moderna’s vaccine needs only moderate cold storage. But Pfizer’s version will need to be stored in ultra-cold freezers, a complicated task for which hospitals in New Jersey and around the country have been preparing.
Though the vaccines — part of Operation Warp Speed — have not yet been approved by the federal government, the early deliveries will allow facilities to test their operations, according to the New Jersey Department of Health.
“The purpose of pre-positioning the vaccine is to test the delivery and storage systems, as well as assist the federal government with expediting initial shipment,” said Donna Leusner, spokeswoman for the state Health Department, in a statement.
Hospitals will begin administering the vaccines only after the FDA issues an emergency authorization.
“It is not an approval to vaccinate,” Leusner said of the initial shipments. “Sites with pre-positioned vaccine will not be able to use the vaccine until approved… by the federal and state government.”
Morristown Medical Center — which is operated by Atlantic Health — declined to comment on being a selectee. But a spokesman said Atlantic Health began “preparing for the anticipated approval of a COVID-19 vaccine months ago” and has already acquired the super-cold freezers, which can store thousands of doses, at all of its facilities.
“We are working around the clock to ensure that we are ready as soon as vaccines receive their emergency use authorization (EUA) and the final plans for delivery and distribution are announced,” said Luke Margolis, spokesman for Atlantic Health System.
A reporter asked Murphy on Friday to confirm the list of hospitals receiving the vaccine.
Raising his arms and then scratching his chin, Murphy said, “I’m not sure where the hospitals — how that got out there. And I made a decision before coming over here (that) I would refer to the first shipment number, but not — I’m not going to comment on the hospitals.”
Hospitals have been scrambling to prepare for the intricate vaccine process.
“It’s very important to understand that the vaccine effort is a very delicate one, and the transport (and the) ultimate administration of these vaccines is a matter of public safety and really national security,” said Dr. Shereef Elnahal, president and CEO of University Hospital.
Elnahal also declined to say whether University had, in fact, been selected as one of the hospitals to receive the vaccines. But he said the hospital has been working in close collaboration with the state Health Department for several weeks on planning and logistics.
There will be a large, designated space inside University dedicated solely to vaccination — essentially “lanes that function similar to assembly lines,” Elnahal said.
“That will allow us to vaccinate as many people as possible throughout the day,” he said. “It’s important for us to get the folks who are willing to take this vaccine as soon as possible when we get our initial doses of the vaccine so that we can create the room for even more vaccines that come soon after that.”
Once approved, the vaccines will ultimately go to “our health care workers and eventually to our community,” he said.
But the hurdles go beyond logistics. Besides the massive effort to develop the vaccines and distribute them is a massive public relations campaign to reassure the public that they are safe. A recent internal poll at University Hospital found that 50% of workers expressed hesitation about the taking the vaccine.
The state Health Department said it is aiming to vaccinate 70% of non-pregnant adults within six months of a vaccine becoming available, noting that it “also depends on how many vaccines have been manufactured and made available by the federal government in April and May.”
Spencer Kent may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.