Neighboring states offer different COVID vaccine eligibility. What you need to know
In New York, teachers are eligible to get a COVID-19 vaccine, but not yet in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. They can start getting vaccines in Connecticut on Thursday.
The different eligibility in neighboring states has offered a separate round of confusion over who can get vaccines and where. And it comes after the states pledged early on to have a regional approach to fighting the virus.
"The partnership with you personally, with your team continues as strong as it has ever been, and it has been invaluable and that partnership has saved lives without question on both sides of the Hudson," New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Feb. 5 during an event to push for more federal aid.
But on both sides of the Hudson and elsewhere, concern remains over vaccine eligibility as states chart their own courses on who is eligible.
Just last week New York's health department had to clarify its guidance after a New Yorker who is a New Jersey teacher was turned away from her vaccination appointment. New York allows those who work in other states to get vaccinated.
In New Jersey, the lack of vaccinations for educators has been met with backlash. Some educators and lawmakers have urged Murphy to expedite the process, which they say will help schools to reopen safely at a time when nearly 200 districts remain fully remote.
"We think it’s a critical step for safely reopening for in-person education,” said Steve Baker, spokesman for the New Jersey Education Association, which represents teachers and other school professionals.
"We’ve urged the administration to do everything in its power to obtain the vaccine so we can get educators and others who need it vaccinated quickly."
A battle for vaccines
Much of the debate comes down to a supply and demand issue.
Cuomo has said he would like to add more people to New York's vaccination list, such as restaurant workers, but states simply do not have enough vaccines for everyone yet.
Restaurant workers in New York can get on vaccine lists, but it is up to counties to decide if they have enough available doses.
"We have 7.1 million people who are eligible; we have 300,000 doses per week that we get," Cuomo said Feb. 2.
"Do the math, it's a supply issue."
States' quest for more vaccine and thus being able to make more people eligible continues to get help from the federal government, both through Washington's own programs and more doses shipped to states.
The Biden administration said Tuesday it will begin sending coronavirus vaccines directly to community health centers to reach underserved communities. To start, at least one center in every state and territory will get vaccines.
"We are meeting communities where they are, in places they know and trust," White House COVID-19 coordinator Jeff Zients said during New York's briefing Wednesday.
The White House announced a 5% increase in vaccines compared to last week, for a total of a 28% increase since President Joe Biden came into office three weeks ago.
"These new steps will help meet the President’s goal of administering 100 million shots in 100 days and ensure that vaccines are administered equitably," the White House said in statement.
How states are responding
New York has made the vaccine available to those over age 65, health care workers, first responders and teachers. On Monday, those with a host of preexisting conditions will be eligible.
New Jersey has not yet opened vaccines to teachers and other school staff.
In the Garden State, people 65 or older, those with high-risk medical conditions, health care professionals and fire and police personnel are eligible.
Gov. Murphy has also allowed vaccines to be distributed to the state's 2 million smokers in a controversial move announced last month.
Murphy has defended the vaccine rollout, and the omission of educators, by saying supplies are limited and the state has to protect the people most vulnerable to severe COVID cases first.
Currently, 18 states including New York, Connecticut and Delaware have begun vaccinating all teachers. Individuals who teach in New Jersey but live in New York are able to get the vaccine in that state.
Democratic Reps. Josh Gottheimer and Tom Malinowski called for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to make educators a priority in a letter Thursday.
"We know that every parent, including ourselves, wants their child to be able to return to a safe and stable school environment where they can see their friends and receive the best education possible," they wrote.
Currently, 190 New Jersey school districts are fully remote; 491 have a mix of remote and in-person-classes; and 95 offer in-person learning five days a week. Another 35 have schools that use a combination of full, hybrid and remote.
Getting the doses in arms
It is also a question of using the doses they have.
An analysis of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data found that Pennsylvania has used just over 62% of the doses it has received. In New York it was 71% and 74% in New Jersey, the report found.
The process is ramping up though.
Pennsylvania officials said the state received 12,200 more doses this week than last.
Though the commonwealth would need more than 5 million additional doses from the federal government in order to vaccinate all people who are eligible in group 1a and those with high-risk conditions, Department of Health senior adviser Lindsey Mauldin said.
Nearly 4 million Pennsylvanians are now eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine as the state and 66 of its counties work through the first priority phase, vaccinating health care workers, long-term care facility residents, people 65 and older, and those with underlying health conditions — a process that could take months at current rates.
Currently, only eligible individuals who have pre-scheduled appointments are able to get the vaccine.
The next phase of vaccination, Phase 1B, will target education and child-care workers, people in protective services occupations, essential services workers, critical industry workers and adults with high-risk medical conditions living in congregate settings.
But Pennsylvania health officials could not say when residents in the next eligibility group will be able to get vaccinated, Mauldin said Tuesday.
“Our goal at this point is to vaccinate all folks in the 1a eligibility category,” Mauldin said. “That is our focus at this time.”
But at the same time, she said the state is still aiming to open up coronavirus vaccinations to the general public by the summer.
“We still think that’s a realistic goal,” Mauldin said.
Joseph Spector is the Government and Politics Editor for the USA TODAY Network's Atlantic Group, overseeing coverage in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware. He can be reached at JSPECTOR@Gannett.com or followed on Twitter: @GannettAlbany
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