NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—After initially sharing inaccurate information with the press and the public, Governor Phil Murphy admitted New Brunswick has the lowest COVID-19 vaccination rate of any New Jersey municipality with at least 10,000 people.
After more than a week to cope with the news, some of the city’s elected officials still have not acknowledged the dubious distinction publicly, including Mayor James Cahill and City Council President Suzanne Sicora-Ludwig.
City Councilwoman Rebecca Escobar told New Brunswick Today that “misinformation regarding the vaccines” was a “major barrier” to some residents getting vaccinated, a problem that could prolong the ongoing pandemic.
Despite being home to the worldwide headquarters of vaccine maker Johnson & Johnson (J&J), and being nicknamed “The Healthcare City,” less than one-third of the New Brunswick’s eligible residents have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.
According to the latest numbers, just 30% of eligible city residents were vaccinated. The number is even lower if you count children who have since become eligible.
The revelation that New Brunswick was lagging behind came only after Murphy gave the bad info during his televised press briefing on May 3. Previously, vaccine data was only available to the public in a format that was aggregated statewide or by county.
While rolling out the new layer of transparency, the Governor spoke over a slide that falsely claimed a handful of municipalities had a lower rates than New Brunswick.
Later that day, news reports cited the “new data” provided subsequent to the Governor’s misleading presentation. Murphy, who is running for re-election this year, has not publicly acknowledged the goof or explained how it happened.
“It was an error. I’m not going to go past that,” Murphy’s senior advisor Dan Bryan told New Brunswick Today.
“Feel free to write all about that.”
When questioned about what led to the mistake, other spokespersons for the Governors’ Office were unwilling to give an answer on the record.
The erroneous graphic listed Lakewood as the least vaccinated community in that category, with New Brunswick tied for the fourth-least vaccinated spot.
“Having these numbers out there for everyone to see is important to ensuring that everyone is working and pulling together,” said Murphy, next to a slide listing Lakewood, Irvington, Pemberton, and Camden before New Brunswick.
This was just the latest in a series of errors by Governor Murphy’s administration, which has previously resisted providing transparency when it comes to localized data, and other public health records:
- Until recently, the administration “suppressed” any data on COVID-19 deaths and cases for geographic areas less than 20,000 population, including more than 70% of the state’s zip codes and more than 400 of the state’s municipalities. (The standard was changed to 10 people after numerous complaints from this reporter.)
- Murphy’s Department of Health (DOH) had to remove more than 10,442 cases from state statistics on April 26, causing wild fluctuations in the state’s rate of transmission that continue to this day.
- After Murphy and Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli said they saw no problem with releasing facility-level data sent to the state on a daily basis by hospitals and other healthcare facilities, the DOH rejected a request for that information, which would have showed things like the availability of hospital beds and crucial equipment.
- Just days into the pandemic, Murphy signed a bill gutting the state’s Open Public Records Act by taking the seven business day response requirement out of the law and making it an open-ended timeline for a response.
The truth came out shortly thereafter, with the Governor’s Office quietly releasing “more up-to-date data” indicating that vaccination rates that were actually double or triple those shown during the briefing.
But still just 24% of “Healthcare City” residents had received a vaccine injection, putting New Brunswick in last place.
Failing to acknowledge the recent screw-up may serve to aid Murphy’s political campaign and also shield his allies in New Brunswick and Middlesex County from some of the fallout from the bad news. Perth Amboy, another poverty-stricken city in the county, also appeared on the initial list, and is now tied with Trenton for eight-least vaccinated city.
One week after falsely claiming Lakewood had the lowest rate, Murphy finally had accurate figures to present on May 10.
Without mentioning the previous error, he focused on the 6% increase that brought New Brunswick’s rate up to 30%, still the lowest in the state, and he also touted a new feature on the state’s COVID-19 website that displays vaccination rates for all of the state’s communities.
Most of the local officials, however, have exercised their right to remain silent about the city’s latest poor public health ranking.
Eight-term Mayor James Cahill, a close ally of Murphy, did not respond to requests for comment on the dubious distinction, and did not answer whether he himself had been vaccinated.
“The Mayor did not have any comment for any of the questions,” said city spokesperson Bert Baron.
News of the low vaccination rate was not mentioned on any of the first three “COVID-19 podcasts” recorded by Baron since it was first made public.
Hours before Murphy first shared the list of least vaccinated communities, in an eight-minute episode, Baron included a weather report, details on street closures, and speculation about what the Governor might say in the day’s “major announcement.” But nothing about where or how to get a COVID-19 vaccine.
“More than 30% of our state’s population is fully vaccinated, so some of the things that may be discussed by the Governor today, perhaps maybe loosening some of the indoor dining restrictions, perhaps bars, maybe beach access,” said Baron, promising to share information on Twitter “if it is of particular interest to the City of New Brunswick.”
When Murphy displayed a slide showing New Brunswick on the list of least vaccinated communities, the city’s social media accounts did not take note of the alarming distinction, instead issuing ten back-to-back messages about the relaxation of restrictions on businesses and gatherings while ignoring the glaringly low vaccination rate.
“Starting with today’s update, we’re going to pay very close attention… to vaccine accessibility,” Baron said two days later at the top of his show, without mentioning the low number.
After we reached out with questions, Baron said he would include the vaccination rate in the show, but his May 12 episode referenced the erroneous information provided during Murphy’s May 3 briefing and still didn’t mention New Brunswick’s last-place status, only acknowledging the city was among the sixteen least vaccinated.
“New Brunswick… was at 12%. This week’s number was up to 30%, so that was a pretty encouraging jump,” said Baron, spinning the news as favorable and conflating Murphy’s bad information with corrected data.
The low rate was also not mentioned during New Brunswick’s May 5 City Council meeting, and four of the five Council members have failed to answer questions about the city’s low vaccination rate and whether they have been vaccinated.
Robert Rawls, the head of the city’s Office of Emergency Management was absent from that meeting, and another firefighter gave the COVID-19 report at the meeting, neglecting to mention the New Brunswick’s status as the least-vaccinated city in New Jersey.
Councilwoman Rebecca Escobar told New Brunswick Today that Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital (RWJUH) was holding clinics “targeting the hard to reach residents especially in the Latino community.”
“As part of this effort, community health workers, who are residents of New Brunswick, conducted outreach in various neighborhoods. The community health workers were able to assess that a major barrier among residents was misinformation regarding the vaccines,” said Escobar. “A group of stakeholders is working to address this through social media, vídeos, and others.”
“In addition, we are working on coordinating more vaccination clinics in the community. Hopefully, these efforts will result in more residents getting vaccinated.”
So far, Escobar is the only elected official in New Brunswick to admit she has been vaccinated. Three members of the Council did not respond to our questions, and Councilman John Anderson responded by questioning the statistics.
Confronted at their recent public meeting, county government officials were more forthcoming about the issue.
”I could assure that we at the county are making effort to educate people and entice people to get vaccinated,” said Rios when questioned about this at the May 6 telephone meeting. “We can’t hold a gun to their head.”
“When I’m in my own circle of friends and family, we have this discussion, and I encourage all people that I run into… to get vaccinated if they haven’t been vaccinated,” Rios told this reporter on the call.
“Do I wish that New Brunswick’s not the least vaccinated? Of course. But we’re making every effort to educate people and Lord knows we have the capability and the manpower to do that.”
After the Governor’s Office admitted New Brunswick’s vaccination numbers were as low as 24% on May 3, Middlesex County pulled out of participating in the state’s vaccine scheduling system and moved to deploy their own.
“As of 5/10/2021, Middlesex County will no longer accept appointments booked through NJVSS (covidvaccine.nj.gov). The County has launched its own dedicated scheduling portal for Middlesex County locations,” reads the new site.
The move was announced in a press statement issued on May 4, one day after the Governor revealed New Brunswick and Perth Amboy were on the least vaccinated list. The release was headlined “Middlesex County expands COVID-19 vaccine accessibility.”
Commissioner Shanti Narra, who was named Deputy Director of the board at the meeting, said the county health department was “brainstorming” how to better reach out to New Brunswick residents.
Narra, who oversees the department, also spoke of a recent meeting with other organizations to connect with communities who may have “trust issues” with the vaccines.
“It’s something that we have to focus on… Having New Brunswick at that low rate is not a good thing,” said Narra. “It means that we have to–all of us, everbody–partner together and re-double our efforts, and we are very much focused on that,” Narra continued.
“If people aren’t going to come to us, then we’ll go out to them,” said Narra. “Our public health office is filled with incredibly dedicated workers… who are ready and willing to do what we need to do to get those numbers up in New Brunswick.”
“We are mindful of efforts that we’re going to have to pick up to really address the issue in New Brunswick.”
Currently, the city is home to a single county-run clinic per week, to be held over the course of three hours beginning at 10am on May 14 in downtown New Brunswick’s Heldrich Hotel.
Vaccines are also available to the general public at both of New Brunswick’s hospitals, and at Walgreens and RiteAid locations within the city, according to a page on the city government’s website. Typically, an appointment is needed.
However, there is at least one “walk-in” vaccine clinic scheduled for May 13 at St. Peter’s University Hospital, where residents can get a first dose of the Moderna brand vaccine without an appointment from 4-8pm.
A “mega-site” run by RWJBarnabas Health is open for appointments at the New Jersey Exposition Center in Edison’s Raritan Center industrial park, and has a four-hour period daily where no appointments are necessary, from 8am-12pm, and the Pfizer brand injections are offered.
One factor complicating the rollout of the vaccines was a high-profile “pause” in the distribution of Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine, which was once hailed by Murphy as a “game-changer.”
The sudden move has hampered efforts to reach the state’s ambitious goals But a bigger issue might be declining demand as those who want to take the vaccine get it done, and fewer new people show interest, especially in low-income communities like New Brunswick.
According to the state’s COVID-19 website, the “Janssen” vaccine, named for the J&J subsidiary that produces it, was first administered to members of the general public on March 3.
The daily number of total vaccine shots administered in the state peaked with just over 130,000 injections on April 8. Over 22,000 of those were Janssen single-shot vaccines.
But a major screw-up in a Baltimore factory caused millions of J&J doses to be tainted, and they had to be disposed of, causing a bottleneck in the supply chain. Shortly thereafter, concerns over side effects of the J&J vaccine caused the federal government to abruptly stop its distribution.
The pause lasted eleven days, from April 13 to April 23, but since then, the number of Janssen vaccines distributed has continued to be a very small fraction of the total shots administered. On May 9, for example, just 515 Janssen shots were administered as the number of total doses of fell to the lowest number since February 14, with just over 20,000 total shots of all COVID-19 vaccines, including first and second doses.
The new component of the state’s online COVID-19 “dashboard” includes localized data from May 7, indicating just 25% of the city’s residents had received at least one dose of a vaccine. When the statistics are narrowed down by age, 32% of adults had received a shot, and 72% of seniors over 65. Until recently, only adults were able to get a vaccine.
Murphy has set an ambitious goal to have 70% of the state’s adults fully vaccinated by the end of June, but so far just 16% of New Brunswick’s adults had completed their vaccine course, according to the dashboard.
Charlie is the founder and editor of New Brunswick Today, and the winner of the Awbrey Award for Community-Oriented Local Journalism. He is a proud Rutgers University journalism graduate, a community organizer, and a former independent candidate for mayor of New Brunswick.