‘Boost NJ Day’ marks one-year anniversary of COVID vaccine rollout
One year ago Wednesday, on Dec. 15, 2020 in Newark, University Hospital nurse Maritza Beniquez became the first person in New Jersey to receive a dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.
Since then, according to the state's dashboard, more than 7 million people who live, work, or study in New Jersey have gotten at least one vaccine dose, with 6.3 million considered "fully vaccinated" by the federal standard of two doses of Pfizer or Moderna's shots, or one shot of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
Still, since the vaccine rollout began, almost 730,000 additional COVID cases have been confirmed in the Garden State, and more than 12,000 people infected with the coronavirus have died.
Daily case counts peaked in mid-January 2021, with the Delta variant subsequently fueling a late-summer surge just after New Jersey achieved Gov. Phil Murphy's initial goal of fully vaccinating 4.7 million adults, or 70% of the adult population.
Now, as fall has turned to winter, people and activities have increasingly moved indoors, and there are concurrent concerns about waning immunity provided by the primary vaccination series, large holiday gatherings, and the transmissibility of the emerging Omicron variant.
With all that in mind, earlier this week Murphy designated Wednesday as "Boost NJ Day," pledging increased walk-up access to additional vaccine doses at many sites around the state.
So far 1.7 million people in New Jersey have received a third or booster dose, about 37% of those who are eligible, either due to higher COVID risk or because it has been six months or more since they gained "fully vaccinated" status.
That number needs to climb higher, and quickly, according to Dr. Meg Fisher, a pediatric infectious disease expert and special adviser to state Department of Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli.
Fisher said the original vaccination target percentage is a good place to start.
"Now we know that really, if we're going to turn off this surge that we're really in right now, we need to get as many people as possible boosted," she said. "We need at least 70% of our population to be boosted. If we have less boosters, we're very concerned that we're going to get into an even greater surge."
And, if the booster campaign stalls, could New Jersey return to the stringent shutdowns of March and April 2020, a so-called "pandemic 2.0"?
Fisher said current modeling warns that hospitalization numbers could return to early pandemic levels by the spring of 2022, but added that even as immunity from initial vaccinations has worn off, 75% to 80% of people currently hospitalized for COVID in the state have had no vaccine shots at all, and that those are the patients overwhelmingly filling ICU beds.
Breakthrough cases will continue to occur among people who are fully vaccinated or even boosted, according to Fisher, but the goal of health officials is to prevent those individuals from experiencing any case whatsoever.
"If you haven't gotten a shot yet, please go get your first shot. If you haven't gotten your second shot, get that," she said. "As long as the virus keeps replicating, we know that there will continue to be new variants, and we don't know when one of these variants will be even worse."
Fisher wants to remind New Jerseyans that 16- and 17-year-olds, in addition to adults 18 and older, are now eligible for booster shots, and initial vaccinations have been cleared for anyone in the state down to age 5.
Aside from that, Fisher said people should continue to take the precautions that have served them well thus far: mask up, keep their distance in public when possible, stay home when they are sick, get tested if they show symptoms — and wash their hands.
She said the state still has "a ways to go," but there is "hope for a better 2022."