New Jersey has administered just a quarter of its coronavirus vaccine stockpile — and among the first to get the shot are prison inmates and correctional officers, who the state defines as a "very vulnerable" population.

When the general public in New Jersey will be able to get the vaccine remains an open question as public health officials meet to decide the criteria and timelines.

The first correctional facility to receive vaccine doses was South Woods State Prison in Bridgeton, as confirmed in an email to New Jersey 101.5 by NJ PBA Local 1015 President William Sullivan.

With roughly 3,300 inmates, South Woods State Prison is the state’s largest correctional facility and also has reported the most confirmed cases of coronavirus since late August, with 107 staff and 166 inmates, based on test results.

Statewide, prison facilities reported 51 confirmed COVID-19 deaths among inmates at the height of the pandemic’s first wave last year, between April and July.

Spread of the virus was an issue among Department of Corrections facilities early on, as just a month into the pandemic, at least 170 correctional officers or other staff and 50 inmates or federal detainees had tested positive statewide.

Sullivan also said there was an equipment factor before the vaccine could be rolled out at other prison facilities.

When asked on Dec. 30 by a reporter from the Bergen Record whether inmates had begun getting vaccinated, Gov. Phil Murphy gave a roundabout answer.

“Let's just say the following. No 1, other vulnerable communities are not in 1A. We know that our prison population is a very vulnerable community and it's why I think we've done this responsibly and safely, but we have dramatically reduced our prison population for a number of reasons, by the way, and I want to do that more as it relates to non-violent crimes, for instance, with minimum mandatory sentences as an example," he said.

As part of the state's efforts to lessen coronavirus spread among inmates and correctional staff, Murphy signed a law back in October, allowing some inmates nearing the end of their sentences early release from prison amid a pandemic.

At the news conference, State Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli confirmed that vaccinations had started being administered to correctional officers and inmates, noting “we do consider when the CDC moved from long-term care to congregate settings, we do consider the prison population a congregate setting. We're working with [DOC] Commissioner [Marcus] Hicks to vaccinate the prison population and the employees that care for them under that heading of congregate. They did not fit into the pharmacy program, but they do fit into our definition.”

State guidance updated as of Dec. 28 on who is eligible for the very first round of COVID-19 vaccines offered a description of “long-term care settings” that included "institutional settings like psychiatric hospitals, correctional institutions, county jails, and juvenile detention facilities (for eligible minors) as well as "other vulnerable, congregate, long-term settings."

The same guidance said there were roughly 650,000 people in New Jersey who are eligible for Phase 1A, so it may be weeks before the state moves to Phase 1B.

Definitions of who fits into phase 1B and 1C of the state's COVID-19 vaccine program remained under development as of the end of December, and Persichilli said Monday that the professional advisory committee would be meeting Monday night to discuss specifics of the next level of the vaccine rollout.

Murphy announced that 101,417 COVID-19 vaccinations had been administered to the first segment of New Jersey recipients as of Monday.

Previously, the state also reported receiving 400,000 vaccine doses through November.

Among those considered “healthcare personnel” under phase 1A of the state's vaccination program:

  • Licensed healthcare professionals like doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and dentists
  • Staff like receptionists, janitors, mortuary services, laboratory technicians
  • Consultants, per diem, and contractors who are not directly employed by the facility
  • Unpaid workers like health professional students, trainees, volunteers and essential caregivers
  • Community health workers, doulas and public health professionals like Medical Reserve Corps
  • Personnel with variable venues like EMS, paramedics, funeral staff and autopsy workers
  • Other paid or unpaid workerswho work in a healthcare setting, who may have direct or indirect contact with infectious persons or materials, and who cannot work from home

“Unpaid” healthcare workers include health professional students, trainees, volunteers, and essential caregivers.

For the purpose of COVID-19 vaccinations, “healthcare settings” as defined by New Jersey's vaccine plan include:

  • Psychiatric facilities, federally qualified health centers, and rehabs
  • Clinic-based settings like urgent care clinics, dialysis centers, and family planning sites
  • Long-term care settings like nursing homes, assisted living facilities, group homes, and others
  • Occupational-based healthcare settings like health clinics within workplaces, shelters, jails, colleges and universities, and K-12 schools
  • Community-based healthcare settings like PACE and Adult Living Community Nursing
  • Home-based settings like hospice, home care, and visiting nurse services
  • Office-based healthcare settings like physician and dental offices
  • Public health settings like local health departments, LINCS agencies, harm reduction centers, and medicinal marijuana programs
  • Retail, independent, and institutional pharmacies
  • Other settings where healthcare is provided

When asked Monday about which higher-risk members of the public might fall into the 1B segment of vaccine rollout, Murphy said he understood concerns and pressure being raised by those anxious for the chance to be vaccinated, whether based on pre-existing conditions such as cancer, advanced age, or being a frontline worker.

The governor noted some states have sort of "turned their back on the 1A protocols," such as Florida, which has opted to prioritize older residents over younger health care workers, as an example.

While saying he would like the nation's vaccine supply to be able to accommodate such citizens, "We see enormous value to having healthcare workers getting their second dose," as it helps ensure that the hospital system does not get overwhelmed as the pandemic continues.

In its interim vaccine plan updated Dec. 15, the state suggested that the 1B group of those eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine would include first responders such as police and firefighters.

The draft state vaccine plan also suggested that the 1C group would include adults 65 and older, and those with high-risk medical conditions.

As far as the timing of when the state's COVID-19 vaccines can begin to be offered to some within the second tier of Phase 1, the health commissioner said there still remains to see how many other eligible healthcare workers opt into their chance at getting vaccinated.

Specific to the vaccine doses already received by the state, Persichilli said 120,000 doses have been set aside for long-term care facilities, referring back to the pharmacy partnership program which already has carried out 69 vaccine clinics at nursing home facilities.

The health commissioner said 4,285 long-term care residents and more than 3,800 staff at those sites had been vaccinated as of Monday, with vaccine clinics set at another 193 facilities this week and another 615 clinics scheduled throughout January.

Persichilli also said that there already were about 200 vaccination sites for those eligible to receive their first dose under the 1A category of healthcare personnel.

She said starting on Friday, two of the state's planned vaccine "mega sites" will begin offering 1,000 doses a week in Morris and Gloucester counties.

Those sites previously have been announced as the Rockaway Townsquare Mall in Rockaway and Rowan College of South Jersey in Sewell. (RCSJ is a public, two-year college which is separate from Rowan University in Glassboro, though the schools do have a partnership for student transfers.)

The Rockaway vaccination site has been planned to operate at the vacant Sears store at the mall, according to a Dec. 21 news release from the Rockaway Mayor's Office.

Separately, ShopRite announced that 39 of its New Jersey locations have received doses of the vaccine to administer by appointment for those who are eligible.

READ MORE: LOVED & LOST — NJ’s lives lost to COVID-19