As virus cases rise, vaccinations creep upward

Mandates, fear bring new immunizations out of July’s nadir

By: - August 20, 2021 7:03 am
man getting vaccine

The drop in vaccinations that began in mid-June coincided with a precipitous decline in the number of new virus cases reported by the state. (Marko Geber/Getty Images)

More New Jerseyans are getting vaccinated as the Delta variant drives up New Jersey’s virus case counts.

More than 156,000 residents started their vaccine regiment in the first 15 days of August, 43% more than did so during the same period in July.

That month, new vaccinations fell to their lowest levels since COVID-19 immunizations began last December. Just 109,738 residents received their first dose of vaccines manufactured by Pfizer and Moderna or their lone dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine in the first 15 days of July.

“Why, we ask, are these numbers all of a sudden going up more? I think it has to do with the fact that many people are returning back to the workplace and returning back to schools and returning back to places that are definitely going to be crowded,” said Corey Basch, chair of William Paterson University’s Department of Public Health.

Even with recent gains, new vaccinations are still a fraction of what was seen during the spring and winter, when tens of thousands of residents were immunized each day.

Public health experts and officials agreed a confluence of factors are driving increased vaccine uptake, including the spread of the virulent Delta variant.

“I think the information that we know about this pandemic is growing by the day, and it gives great reason for fear — legitimate fear — among those people who are not legitimately vaccinated to begin the process,” said Stanley Weiss, a professor of Medicine at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School.

The drop in vaccinations that began in mid-June coincided with a precipitous decline in the number of new virus cases reported by the state.

For all of June, daily case counts were in the low hundreds. Even the 309 new infections New Jersey reported on June 25, the most that month, numbered among the lowest seen throughout the pandemic, and that trend kept until mid-July, when cases began to rise once more.

New Jersey hasn’t reported fewer than 1,000 new infections since Aug. 9. Deaths have remained low.

The growing presence of vaccine mandates is also likely a contributing factor, said New Jersey Department of Health spokesperson Nancy Kearny.

“Many companies and hospitals are mandating vaccination and as people return to work in person, they may feel the need to protect themselves by getting vaccinated,” she said.

Though mandates at the state level remain rare — Gov. Phil Murphy has ordered workers in health care and some other congregate settings be vaccinated by Sept. 7 or submit to weekly testing and will reportedly require teachers be immunized against COVID-19 — some businesses, local governments, and universities have enacted their own directives.

University mandates cover as many as hundreds of thousands of students, faculty, and staff, and apart from limited exemptions offered for medical or religious reasons, non-compliance comes with stark penalties.

“They’re taking relatively drastic measures in dropping registrations of students who haven’t gotten an exemption or proven their vaccination,” Basch said.

There’s a fear among experts that vaccinations will slow in the coming weeks, allowing the virus the spread further and potentially mutate into an even more virulent and transmissible strain.

The worry is the bump in vaccine uptake could be driven by residents with relatively soft resistance to vaccination, said Weiss, who is also a professor of biostatistics and epidemiology at the Rutgers School of Public Health.

“The problem is increasing, not decreasing,” he said, adding, “As dangerous as the Delta variant is, given the pandemic nature of this, a rapid increase in infection around the world, that is exactly the brewing stew for creating new variants that could be even more dangerous, and we need to begin preparing for that.”

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Nikita Biryukov
Nikita Biryukov

Nikita Biryukov most recently covered state government and politics for the New Jersey Globe. His tenure there included revelatory stories on marijuana legalization, voting reform and Rep. Jeff Van Drew's decamp to the Republican Party. Earlier, he worked as a freelancer for The Home News Tribune and The Press of Atlantic City.