Why is Hudson County at bottom for vaccines but near top for COVID-19 rate?

LILO H. STAINTON, HEALTH CARE WRITER | MARCH 18, 2021

NJ Spotlight News

Jesse Aubrey, right, a resident of Secacus, in Hudson County, about to be vaccinated.

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Hudson County has the second-highest rate of COVID-19 cases among New Jersey’s 21 counties and currently ranks third when it comes to the rate of new cases weekly, according to state data.

But despite this — and the potential for the disease to spread among its densely packed residents — Hudson County comes in last for the number of COVID-19 vaccinations per person. It also has one of the state’s highest percentages of Black and Hispanic residents, populations at higher risk than others for infection, hospitalization and death from the coronavirus.

Hudson County officials said they are working hard to get people vaccinated and have been administering all the doses provided by state officials each week. They are also pushing Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration to increase the county’s weekly allocation, which they said has been scaled back recently.

“A lot of people are looking at Hudson County and asking why our rate of vaccination is the lowest in the state. It’s unbelievably frustrating for us,” said David Drumeler, deputy Hudson County administrator. He said many residents lack cars, which may make it harder for them to access regional vaccine sites, possibly contributing to the gap.

“There is nothing we can do to get more than 100% of shots in peoples’ arms,” Drumeler said.

Too many photo-ops?

The issue has also been adopted by the editorial board of the Jersey Journal, which has published several recent opinion pieces pushing Hudson County officials to “stop sitting on their hands and posing for pictures with the governor” and doing more to secure additional vaccines from the state.

Murphy said Wednesday that state officials work “actively” with leaders in all 21 counties, including those in Hudson County.

But despite multiple requests, neither Murphy’s office nor the state Department of Health have provided a county-by-county breakdown of vaccine distribution. NJ Spotlight News has asked Murphy and his staff for that information and has since filed a formal public records request with the DOH.

“We are on constantly with the teams, with Tom DeGise, the (Hudson) county executive, the (Hudson County) commissioners, the mayors, who are quite notably in Hudson County significant in many government matters,” Murphy said, as they are in other counties, but “particularly” in Hudson. “We are working with them. We want to get Hudson County to be as strong as possible. They deserve it and we are working with them.”

Since March, more than 74,000 COVID-19 cases have been diagnosed in Hudson County — or more than 110 per 100,000 residents — including 2,060 people who died, according to state records. Passaic County had a case rate of more than 120 per 100,000 residents, but less than 60,400 cases overall. Bergen County had the highest case count, with more than 84,000 diagnoses, but a lower rate of 90 per 100,000.

Digging into vaccine data

But state vaccine data paints a different picture for Hudson, which has more than 672,000 residents, making it the fourth most-populous county. Hudson is tenth in the total number of vaccine doses administered — with slightly more than 150,000 shots given so far, as of Monday, fewer than less-populated Burlington and Morris counties. With just over 15 doses administered per 100 people, it has the lowest vaccination rate in the state, behind Passaic County (12 per 100) and Union County (194 per 100).

On the other end of the spectrum is largely rural Cape May County, which has the second-lowest population (just over 92,000 residents) and the state’s top vaccination rate, nearly 33 per 100 residents. Morris County had the second-highest vaccination rate, with almost 30 per 100 residents having received at least one shot, and Gloucester County ranked third, with close to 27 per 100 at least partially protected.

The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines in use since December require two doses, while the Johnson & Johnson version authorized in February involves only one shot. Statewide, some 3.1 million people have had at least one dose and more than 1 million are now fully protected against COVID-19, which has been diagnosed in nearly 850,000 New Jerseyans since last year, including some 24,000 who have died.

According to Drumeler, the state has provided county officials 10,100 doses since late January via weekly shipments that had been ramping up; these are then distributed to municipal administration sites. (Additional vaccines are also being provided to a regional hospital, community health centers and certain pharmacies through other allocation processes, he noted.)

No doses for drive-through

But recent shortages are forcing the county to make changes. Drumeler said Hudson County will be unable to open its drive-through facility in Kearny on Friday as a result. “Of the first doses we receive, we get 100% in arms,” he said.

Some tension has existed among state, county and local officials since the coronavirus vaccine program began in December, with county and local leaders raising concerns about the state’s allocation process. Vaccine clinic operators submit weekly requests to the state, which are reviewed by officials and forwarded to federal authorities, who then ship the vaccines directly to the administration sites.

But the process remains something of a mystery. In the past, officials with the DOH have said the state uses a formula to determine the allocation for each site, based on factors that include population, local disease burden and the operation’s vaccination capacity. The goal, they have said, is to ensure vaccines are broadly distributed throughout the state.

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published this page in News and Politics 2021-03-18 02:24:05 -0700