RARITAN TOWNSHIP — Weeks before the state began opening eligibility to the general public, a hospital in Hunterdon County was handing out the coveted COVID-19 vaccine to deep-pocketed donors and the relatives of its executives.

And while vulnerable senior citizens wondered when it would be their turn, recipients of the vaccine at Hunterdon Medical Center included officials' young-adult children who were able to get the shot at a time when only front-line healthcare workers and long-term care residents could.

The line-cutting at the hospital was revealed by vaccine registry information that a whistleblower provided to New Jersey 101.5, demonstrating that despite the state's plan for an "equitable" distribution of the vaccine, those with privilege are managing to get it anyway.

More than a month after a connected few with ties to Hunterdon Medical Center, Hunterdon Healthcare and the Hunterdon Healthcare Foundation received their vaccines, fewer than 630,000 people have been vaccinated in a state with more than 6.3 million adults. About 5% of the recipients in New Jersey have been Latino and just 3% have been Black. Just under a third of the supply has gone to those over 65, the most vulnerable population.

After the state this month opened eligibility to all adults with underlying medical conditions and a host of essential workers, people seeking the vaccine have encountered fully booked vaccine sites.

A hospital spokesman on Tuesday said that the organization followed all state regulations and that the vaccine was offered to otherwise ineligible people such as employees, retired staff, relatives and volunteers only when there was a risk of virus supply going to waste.

“We make every effort to match the number of prepared doses, which must be thawed and warmed and cannot be stored or reused until the next clinic, to the number of scheduled vaccine recipients,” Jason VanDiver said in a written response to New Jersey 101.5 on Tuesday.

“Only if doses were likely to go to waste were vaccines administered to individuals who did not have an appointment," he added. “Again, only if eligible recipients who were healthcare personnel could not be recruited and excess doses were expected to go to waste, were others sought to receive the vaccine. These recipients, as instructed by the New Jersey Department of Health included family members of staff who were working at the clinic, recently retired Hunterdon Healthcare employees, volunteers, and other non-clinical staff associated with the organization.”

Vaccine VIPs

VanDiver's response came only after New Jersey 101.5 provided the hospital with a list of vaccine recipients. A day earlier, a spokeswoman said that she was not aware of any relatives or donors getting early access to vaccines in December and that "there was no bypassing" of priority groups.

But several people managed to get jabbed before the holidays.

Among them were Bruce and Parry Adam, longtime donors to the foundation who contributed at least $10,000 in 2018. Both received their first shots on Dec. 18, as did the hospital CEO, a day after the first shipment of 975 doses arrived at Hunterdon Medical Center, according to the records obtained by New Jersey 101.5.

At least seven spouses and two young adult children of medical directors, administrators or executives at the healthcare network received the vaccine on Dec. 26, according to the database.

Among that single day’s vaccine recipients:

  • The 56-year-old wife of Hunterdon Medical Center President and CEO Patrick Gavin.
  • The 62-year-old wife and 28-year-old daughter of Hunterdon Healthcare Partners Executive Director & CEO Jeffrey Weinstein.
  • The 62-year-old husband and 29-year-old daughter of Hunterdon Healthcare Partners Administrative Director Rose Puelle.
  • The 63-year-old husband and 30-year-old daughter of Hunterdon Healthcare Partners Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Geralyn Prosswimmer.

The day after Christmas, the vaccine was given to the 64-year-old wife of Hunterdon Medical Center’s Executive Vice President & COO Lawrence Grand and the 32-year-old husband of Hunterdon Medical Center Chief Performance & Innovation Officer Allison Castagna.

Hunterdon Medical Center Trustee Charles Scammell, 68, received his first dose on Dec. 23, while fellow Board of Trustee member Carol Harding, 63, and her husband were both inoculated on Jan. 3, according to the scheduling records.

New Jersey 101.5 reached out to many of the recipients for comment on Tuesday but most did not respond.

“I think what’s happening is not all the front-line workers are opting in. The intent is to get it to those most vulnerable, those over 65," Scammell said when reached by phone.

Other relatives who are not frontline healthcare workers received shots on Dec. 30, including the 57-year-old husband of Hunterdon Healthcare's director of Ambulatory Information Systems, a 68-year-old relative of Hunterdon Regional Cancer Center’s administrative director and another 68-year-old relative of a Hunterdon Healthcare Partners official.

A 22-year-old relative of the hospital’s Adult Hospitalist Service medical director received a dose Jan. 3, as did a 51-year-old financial advisor days before the state opened appointments to eligible first responders, including police and firefighters, on Jan. 7.

The daughter-in-law of Brian and Dorothy Foran said the 75-year-old couple received doses on Dec. 30 because Dorothy is a volunteer at the hospital. The couple's name is recognizable because of their relation to the late state Sen. Walter Foran, the namesake of one of the roadways on the campus. But their daughter-in-law said Dorothy had received a call from the hospital because of her service there, not because of their family history.

Letter to donors

A day before the state opened vaccine appointments to senior citizens and any adult with high-risk conditions, the Hunterdon Healthcare Foundation invited donors to call Steve Lapiki, the foundation's director of major gifts, to "help you schedule an appointment" as soon as they became eligible.

“Who can get the vaccine and when needs to follow strict guidelines set by the State of New Jersey and the Center for Disease Control," according to the Jan. 13 letter. "While the timeline for an individual to receive that vaccine may be complicated, the Foundation is here to help you. This does not mean you will receive the vaccine prior to the category under which you fall but rather, that we will assist you in navigating a process that is rapidly changing and can sometimes be complex.”

In an interview, the Foundation's senior vice president said that no preferential treatment was given to donors in registering for doses.

“It cannot be more important to us to follow the state guidelines," Phil Beekman said Tuesday.

As of Monday, Hunterdon Healthcare had administered 8,000 vaccines since receiving its first shipment, according to a hospital spokesman.

About 500 of those shots were given at a COVID-19 vaccine clinic on Saturday, which was booked through a phone hotline setup by the medical center.

Another community clinic for vaccines was planned for Sunday at the Hunterdon Health and Wellness Center. Appointments were to open Wednesday morning both online or by calling the Vaccination Call Center at 908-237-4238.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article has been updated to include response from the Foran family.

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