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Seniors accounted for 80% of NJ's COVID deaths. But many feel abandoned in vaccine rollout


Scott Fallon   | NorthJersey.com
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When Dr. Robert Gorman learned his large family medical practice based in Essex County would receive thousands of doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, he immediately made plans to prioritize patients based on age. 

After all, 80% of New Jersey's 22,000 virus deaths have been residents 65 years and older.

“We weren't going to make it a free-for-all," Gorman said. "We know who is the most vulnerable in our practice. We know how old they are, what chronic conditions they may have, what medicines they’re taking.”

Gorman's decision to vaccinate his elderly patients first stands in stark contrast to how the vaccine distribution has been playing out throughout most of New Jersey. 

About 37% of New Jersey's vaccines have gone to senior citizens, according to state data, while 62% have been given to 18- to 64-year-olds. With nearly 1.2 million doses administered in New Jersey as of Thursday, that means about 444,000 doses have gone to New Jersey's 1.5 million residents 65 years and older.

When Gov. Phil Murphy opened eligibility on Jan. 14 to senior citizens, those with chronic medical conditions and smokers all at once, it created an enormous logjam for a very scarce and coveted product.

Murphy has said the problems with New Jersey's rollout are caused almost entirely by a supply-and-demand issue.

But seniors who live independently at home say eligibility should have been staggered, with the most elderly coming right after health care workers and nursing home residents, who make up about 40% of NJ's death toll. Other states, including New York and Connecticut, began inoculating those 75 years and older before moving on to other ages and groups.

Murphy has repeatedly defended his decision to make eligible an estimated 2 million smokers, saying that smoking is similar to other chronic diseases because it puts someone at a higher risk of getting a more severe case of COVID.

"It's a false choice to compare smokers to someone else," Murphy said on Wednesday to CNBC

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But New Jersey's 1.5 million seniors found themselves competing with almost three million other New Jerseyans for 200,000 to 300,000 doses that the state has been receiving from the federal government each week. 

Those with limited computer skills have been hindered by the multitude of online portals run by state government and private providers to secure an appointment.

A call center set up by state government has been inundated with hundreds of thousands of calls and long wait times that lead frustrated seniors to hang up before ever reaching a human being. Last week the call center stopped making appointments because of errors by operators.

Even those seniors who have help from younger family members do not always make it through the system.

A college professor in California said she has been unable to secure appointments for her elderly parents in North Jersey and likened the experience to the "Hunger Games" -  a book and film series where young people in a dystopian future are forced to compete in a state-sponsored contest that can only be won by killing all the other contestants.

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Those who do get appointments say the actual process of getting a shot is orderly and efficient. But desperate seniors have also driven across the state for a shot and waited on stand-by lines for hours in the cold.

With no documentation required, almost anyone can get a vaccine in New Jersey regardless of eligibility. The prioritization many seniors thought they would have in the vaccine rollout has not been there.

"This has been one of the most difficult and frustrating experiences of my life," Stephen Gross, 78, of Edgewater, said last week. 

Gross has tried in vain to corral an appointment for him and his 78-year-old wife on nearly every hospital website in Bergen County and even went in person to Palisades Medical Center.

"What should have been a much simpler, orderly process to allocate a scarce resource has turned into a first-come, first-served lottery," he said. "It clearly should have been simple: vaccinate those most vulnerable first until greater supply became available."

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Unable to book an appointment for the COVID-19 vaccination, Denise Pallies, 68, stood in the cold for eight hours to get a shot last month at the state's "mega-site" in Gloucester County, where staff gave out leftover doses at the end of the day.

"What someone should know is that the stand-by line was filled with senior citizens way older than me who could not get appointments," she said. "It was very sad."

A Facebook page manned by volunteers called "New Jersey COVID Vaccine Info" has helped New Jerseyans — including seniors — navigate the online portals and find appointments. It had 27,000 members as of Thursday afternoon. 

Grace Aquino, 75, has registered with about 10 vaccine providers for almost month and hasn't heard a thing. 

"People 20 years younger than me with no medical conditions are getting appointments," said the Franklin Lakes resident. "I am 75 years old and have a heart condition, and my friends and I cannot get an appointment. I am fed up and stressed. I think the whole vax situation is unorganized and a disgrace."

Priority for seniors

One of the few places where seniors are given almost exclusive priority is Gorman's Vanguard Medical Group, based in Verona.

After having success in late summer and early fall with a drive-thru flu vaccine clinic, Gorman and his team made a pitch to the state Health Department to be a COVID vaccine provider to his 67,000 patients. He even purchased an ultra-cold freezer to be able to store the Pfizer vaccine. 

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Vanguard was chosen, and on Dec. 23 it received 3,000 Moderna doses. After vaccinating his own staff, Gorman opened the clinic for a few weeks only to health care workers who were not affiliated with hospitals, such as doctors in private practice, dentists and physical therapists, following state guidelines. 

When Murphy made seniors eligible, Gorman and his staff went to work. They first targeted their 3,000 patients who were 80 years and older and telephoned them to book appointments.

“These are people who may not have access to the internet, so we made sure to reach out to them first," Gorman said. 

Recently the practice opened the clinic up to its patients age 70 and over. Gorman's team has given up to 240 shots a day, but has the capacity to go to 400. Although he has received two shipments totaling 6,000 doses, he said the state Health Department has told him to expect smaller but more frequent shipments. Last week, he received only 200.

“It gets complicated," he said. "We’re trying to run a fairly big operation with some uncertainties.”

Like most providers, Vanguard's offices have been inundated with phone calls — about 1,000 a day — from those seeking the vaccine. He has told patients who are otherwise eligible under Murphy's plan that they would have to wait until the seniors are taken care of. Others blatantly try to cheat the system, driving into the practice's parking lot and pretending they have an appointment or have been longtime patients of the practice. 

"When we tell them that we can't find them in our database, they say they've been coming here for years," Gorman said. "Then we ask them to name their doctors and that pretty much ends that."

Earlier this month when North Jersey was inundated with almost 2 feet of snow, an elderly patient called Vanguard and said she would walk 2.5 miles to the office for a shot if the drive-thru was closed.

"The amount of gratitude they show when they get the vaccine is unbelievable," Gorman said. “You can see the life-changing impact it has.”

Scott Fallon covers the environment for NorthJersey.com. To get unlimited access to the latest news about how New Jersey’s environment affects your health and well-being,  please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

Email: fallon@northjersey.com 

Twitter: @newsfallon