NEWARK – The refrigerator had just six tiny vials of coronavirus vaccine, an Air Force nurse on duty, and a trickle of patients at a state-run mass vaccination site here on Saturday morning. A day before the doors finally closed, this once hectic operation was strangely quiet.
The post-vaccination waiting room with 165 socially distant chairs was mostly empty. The nurse, Maj. Margaret Dodd, who normally cares for premature babies at Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston, San Antonio, had already booked her flight home. So did the pharmacist Heather Struempf, who went back to nursing school in Wyoming.
Mass vaccination centers are gradually being closed across the country. The White House first admitted Tuesday that it will fail to meet President Biden’s goal of at least partially vaccinating 70 percent of American adults by July 4th. The setback is due to hesitation in certain groups, slow young adult acceptance, and a whirlwind of other complex factors.
The Newark site, which closed on Sunday, was the last of 39 state-run mass vaccination centers to deliver millions of vaccinations over five months in 27 states – a major turning point in what Mr Biden described as “one of the greatest” last week and the most complex logistical challenges in American history. ”Many government websites are also closed or will soon be closed.
The nation’s move away from high-volume vaccination centers is an acknowledgment of the harder road ahead as health officials turn to the “ground game”: a very focused push, akin to an effort to get the voice of those who are hesitant about theirs To get shots.
Mr. Biden will travel to Raleigh, NC on Thursday to raise awareness of this time-consuming work. It won’t be easy – like Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the president’s coronavirus response coordinator, spotted knocking on the door with Mayor Muriel E. Bowser in Anacostia, a black-majority neighborhood in Washington, last weekend.
In an interview on Tuesday, Dr. Fauci, he and the mayor spent 90 minutes talking to people on their porches. But even with a prominent doctor on the doorstep and the prospect of giveaways in the vaccination center of a high school a few blocks away, many remained hesitant. Dr. Fauci said he persuaded six to ten people to get their syringes, despite some blanket rejections.
“We said, ‘Okay, come on, listen: get out, walk down the street a few blocks away. We have incentives, a $ 51 gift certificate, you can enter a raffle, you can win groceries for a year, you could win a jeep, ‘”said Dr. Fauci. “And some of them said, ‘Okay, I’m on my way and I’ll go.'”
But in Newark, where more than three-quarters of the population are Black or Latino, the numbers speak for themselves. In Essex County, New Jersey, which includes Newark, 70.2 percent of adults were vaccinated. But Essex also includes affluent suburbs; in Newark it’s 56 percent, Judith M. Persichilli, the state’s health commissioner, said in an interview.
Located in a converted athletic facility at the New Jersey Institute of Technology that normally houses the school’s tennis teams, the Newark vaccination station was set up and operated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency in collaboration with the Department of Defense and other federal agencies. It opened on March 31; when it was in full swing, its medical staff were administering up to 6,700 shots a day.
On Saturday the number of days had dropped to about 300. The long, corridor-like tents that had once protected patient lines from the cold were empty. Out of 18 registration counters, only four were occupied and most of the vaccination booths were unoccupied.
Most of the patients, including some teenagers brought by their parents, were there for their second dose of the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine. Many – like Abdullah Heath, 19, who took a year off high school and will go to Rutgers University this fall – said they were hesitant. But Rutgers requires a vaccination, so Mr. Heath had no choice.
June 22, 2021, 6:58 p.m. ET
“I wanted to see how other people were when they took the picture,” he said.
Alfredo Sahar, 36, a real estate agent originally from Argentina, said he received his first dose spontaneously and without an appointment when he and his wife went to the Newark site. The couple showed up for their second dose on Saturday with a young friend, Federico Cuadrado, 19, who was visiting from Argentina and received his first shot.
“Relax that arm,” said Major Dodd as Mr. Cuadrado rolled up his sleeve. But she won’t deliver his second shot; Now that the site is closed, he needs to go somewhere else.
At the height of its vaccination campaign, New Jersey had seven mass locations: six state-owned, plus the FEMA site in Newark. Two of the state locations have closed, another will close this week, and the last three are expected to close in mid-July, said Ms. Persichilli, a nurse and former hospital worker. She called the FEMA site, which had a total of 221,130 people vaccinated, “invaluable”.
Mr Biden has repeatedly said that justice – to ensure people of all races and incomes have equal access to care and vaccines – is vital to his response to the coronavirus. FEMA used the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Social Vulnerability Index to identify the locations for its mass vaccination sites to identify the communities most in need, said Deanne Criswell, the FEMA administrator, in an interview.
It was a learning experience for the agency, she said, adding that 58 percent of the roughly six million vaccinations given at the mass vaccination sites were given to people of color.
“We didn’t have a playbook for this type of surgery,” said Ms. Criswell. (The agency now has one with 44 pages.)
In New Jersey, traffic at the mass vaccination sites began to decrease about six weeks ago, Ms. Persichilli said. It was around this time that the state shifted to a “hub-and-spoke” strategy, creating pop-up sites in churches, barbershops, and window displays around existing vaccination centers that could store and deliver the vaccines.
The state has also paid 2,000 recruiters – 1,200, some with federal taxpayers’ money, and 800 volunteers – who knocked on 134,000 doors in areas with low vaccination rates to direct people to nearby clinics. And the health department is planning vaccination clinics at a rock music festival, balloon festival, and rodeo in Atlantic City.
Overall, New Jersey is way ahead of most states: 78 percent of adults have received at least one dose of a vaccine. In four states – Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, and Wyoming – the number is below 50 percent.
“We’re running a marathon and we’re on the last few miles and we’re exhausted and it’s going to be the toughest,” said Ms. Persichilli. “But they will also be the most satisfying.”
Public health officials know that the last mile of a vaccination campaign is indeed the hardest. The smallpox eradication, considered the greatest public health triumph of the 20th century, came after a two-decade, very targeted global campaign. Polio is still not eradicated in some countries, said Dr. Fauci, because of the hesitant vaccination, even in women who express unfounded fears of infertility.
“We should have eradicated polio long ago,” he said.
The federal effort has been enormous, involving more than 9,000 people from across government as well as 30,000 members of the National Guard who supported Covid-19 vaccination in 58 states and territories, according to Sonya Bernstein, a senior White House policy advisor.
With the expiry of the large vaccination sites, FEMA is also turning. The agency still supports more than 2,200 community vaccination centers and mobile vaccination stations. Now FEMA is launching a new pilot program to offer footage in or near recovery centers set up after hurricanes and other natural disasters. The first of these opened this week in St. Charles Parish, LA, which has a large minority population and was devastated by Hurricane Laura last summer. According to data from the CDC, only 51 percent of the adult population in the St. Charles Ward have had at least one injection
The mood in Newark on Saturday was bittersweet. People like Major Dodd and Ms. Struempf, thrown together in a crisis, exchanged phone numbers with newly found friends and colleagues to go their separate ways. After living in hotels for more than two months, they were both eager to leave and longed for the view.
Michael Moriarty, the FEMA vaccination officer in the New York-New Jersey area, surveyed the scene: the empty cubicles and chairs, the boxes of unused latex gloves, the brown paper taped on the floor to cover the tennis courts cover. It wouldn’t take long to undo it, he said, adding, “You will be playing tennis here by the end of the week.”