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Biden aims to vaccinate 70% of American adults by July 4

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden on Tuesday set a new vaccination goal to deliver at least one shot to 70% of adult Americans by July Fourth as he tackles the vexing problem of winning over the “doubters” and those unmotivated to get inoculated.

Demand for vaccines has dropped off markedly nationwide, with some states leaving more than half their available doses unordered. Aiming to make it easier to get shots, Biden called for states to make vaccines available on a walk-in basis, and he will direct many pharmacies to do likewise.

His administration for the first time also is moving to shift doses from states with weaker demand to areas with stronger interest in the shots.

“You do need to get vaccinated,” Biden said from the White House. “Even if your chance of getting seriously ill is low, why take the risk? It could save your life or the lives of somebody you love.”

Biden’s goal equates to delivering at least the first shot to 181 million adults and fully vaccinating 160 million. It’s a tacit acknowledgment of the declining interest in shots.

More than 56% of American adults have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and nearly 105 million are fully vaccinated. The U.S. is administering first doses at a rate of about 965,000 per day — half the rate of three weeks ago, but almost twice as fast as needed to meet Biden’s target.

“I’d like to get it 100%, but I think realistically we can get to that place between now and July Fourth,” Biden said of his new goal.

He said the administration would focus on three areas as it tries to ramp up the pace of vaccinations:

• Adults who need more convincing to take the vaccine.

• Those who have struggled or are in no hurry to obtain a shot.

• Adolescents ages 12-15, once federal authorities approve vaccination for that age group.

Acknowledging that “the pace of vaccination is slowing,” Biden predicted the inoculation effort is “going to be harder” when it comes to convincing “doubters” of the need to get their shots.

He said the most effective argument to those people would be to protect those they love. “This is your choice: It’s life and death.”

Biden’s push comes as his administration has shifted away from setting a target for the U.S. to reach “herd immunity,” instead focusing on delivering as many shots into arms as possible. Officials said Biden’s vaccination target would result in a significant reduction in COVID-19 cases heading into the summer.

To that end, the Biden administration is shifting the government’s focus toward expanding smaller and mobile vaccination clinics to deliver doses to harder-to-reach communities. It is also spending hundreds of millions of dollars to try to boost interest in vaccines through education campaigns and greater access to shots through community organizations that can help bring people to clinics.

Biden touted creative efforts to make it “easier and more fun” to get vaccinated, such as grocery stores offering discounts to shoppers who come to get shots and sports leagues that hold promotions to gets shots for their fans.

Ahead of the Food and Drug Administration’s expected authorization of the Pfizer vaccine for kids ages 12-15, the White House is developing plans to speed vaccinations for that age group. Biden urged states to administer at least one dose to adolescents by July Fourth and work to deliver doses to pediatricians’ offices and other trusted locations, with the aim of getting many of them fully vaccinated by the start of the next school year.

While younger people are at dramatically lower risk of serious complications from COVID-19, they have made up a larger share of new virus cases as a majority of U.S. adults have been at least partially vaccinated and as higher-risk activities like indoor dining and contact sports have resumed in most of the country.

Officials hope that extending vaccinations to teens — who could get the first dose in one location and the second elsewhere, if necessary — will further accelerate the nation’s reduced virus caseload and allow schools to reopen with minimal disruptions this fall.

The urgency to expand the pool of those getting the shots is rooted in hopes of stamping out the development of new variants that could emerge from unchecked outbreaks and helping the country further reopen by the symbolic moment of Independence Day, exactly two months away. Though White House officials privately acknowledge the steep challenge, Biden sounded an optimistic note.

“The light at the end of the tunnel is actually growing brighter and brighter,” Biden said.

Biden’s speech comes as the White House announced a shift away from a strict allocation of vaccines by state population. The administration says that when states decline to take all the vaccine they have been allocated, that surplus will shift to states still awaiting doses to meet demand.

Governors were informed of the change by the White House on Tuesday morning.

This week, Iowa turned down nearly three quarters of the vaccine doses available to the state for next week from the federal government because demand for the shots remains weak. Louisiana, meanwhile, hasn’t drawn down its full vaccine allocation from the federal government for the last few weeks.

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows Louisiana’s coronavirus vaccination rate is well behind most states. About 27% of state residents are fully vaccinated while 32% have received at least one dose of the vaccine, according to the state health department.

The White House previously resisted efforts to distribute vaccine by metrics other than population. Biden rebuffed Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer last month when she requested more doses as her state was experiencing a surge in virus cases. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said at the time nearly all states were ordering at or near their population allocations, which is no longer the case.

Individual states have made similar shifts internally to account for changing demand. Last week, Washington state changed the way it allocates coronavirus vaccine to its counties. Previously the state doled out supplies to counties proportionate to their populations. But now amounts will be based on requests from health care providers.

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Vaccine clinic begins at Ocean City High School for students, families

OCEAN CITY — Seventeen-year-old Eddie D’Amico hasn’t been inside Ocean City High School, where he is a student, since it shut down last March at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic except to take his PSATs this year.

That was, until Tuesday, when he came back to the school for his first COVID-19 vaccine shot.

D’Amico, of Egg Harbor Township, was among the first students and their families to get vaccinated at the school through a partnership with AtlantiCare’s vaccine mega site at the Atlantic City Convention Center.

“I want to lower my risk of getting COVID, and I want to go back to a somewhat sense of normalcy,” he said.

This week, Ocean City and Mainland Regional high schools announced they would be hosting the “mini” mega site at the high school for three days, offering 900 vaccine doses to students 16 and older, and their families.

“Today’s been really positive,” said AtlantiCare’s director of infection prevention, Gemma Downham, who was at the clinic Tuesday. “(The students) were excited.”

In the first hour of the clinic, about 40 people, including students, were vaccinated, but the rush died down by 3 p.m. The clinic will be open 1 to 6 p.m. through Thursday.

Later this week, Mainland will bus students who are interested in being vaccinated to Ocean City. Ocean City Superintendent Kathleen Taylor said she was reaching out to Cape May County school districts to invite them to send students and families to the high school this week to get a shot as well. Taylor said having the vaccine available now for students is good timing with prom and graduation looming.

The students will be scheduled for their second vaccine just before Memorial Day.

Downham, who has worked with school districts over the past year, including Ocean City, to develop plans to return students to full-time, in-person learning, said getting young people vaccinated is the next important step in fighting the pandemic.

“We kind of saw an alarming trend this week in the country,” she said, noting that 22% of all new COVID-19 cases nationally were those under 18. At the same time, the number of new COVID cases among those 75 and older, who are more vulnerable to serious cases of the virus, was on the decline.

The elderly make up the majority of those who have been vaccinated. In New Jersey, residents 65 and older make up 33% of the vaccinated population. People ages 16-29 make up only 11% of those vaccinated in the state.

Despite a healthy start and an overwhelming demand for the vaccine over the winter, Gov. Phil Murphy and state Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli have noted there has been a drop-off in demand for vaccines. There have been open appointments available daily at state-run mega sites, and many facilities have opened up to walk-ins.

Downham said part of the reason for the drop-off in vaccine rates is vaccine hesitancy.

Statewide, New Jersey is about 70% of the way toward reaching its goal of vaccinating 4.7 million residents in the state by summer. Downham said there is much farther to go in reaching herd immunity, at 75% to 80% of eligible citizens vaccinated against the coronavirus.

According to the nonprofit COVID Act Now, about 37% of Atlantic County residents have been fully vaccinated, the same as the statewide percentage. In Cape May County, the rate is higher at 43%.

“We really want to try to increase the numbers,” Downham said.

Ocean City is the first school district in the region to partner with AtlantiCare, but there likely will be more.

Senior Jack Bruce, 18, of Upper Township, said he wasn’t planning to get the vaccine so soon but took the opportunity when it presented itself.

“My mom said it was a good idea,” Bruce said.

After the shot, he said he felt “great.”

Anndalena D’Amico, of Egg Harbor Township, who got vaccinated with her son Tuesday, said that like many others, her family wanted to get the shot, but was nervous about it.

“We both want to feel some layer of protection,” she said. “Nothing is foolproof.”

D’Amico said it was wise for Ocean City to offer the vaccine to students and families because it shows the district has confidence in the vaccines, which will give comfort to those who may be on the fence.

“I hope more districts do it,” she said.

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4 more juveniles charged in fatal Atlantic City Boardwalk robbery

ATLANTIC CITY — Four additional juveniles were arrested Saturday in connection with an April 1 Boardwalk robbery that left a shopkeeper dead.

City police detectives and members of the Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office arrested the youths, Prosecutor Damon G. Tyner said Tuesday in a news release.

The latest arrests bring to six the number of people charged; a boy, 12, and a girl, 14, were arrested the day after shop owner Mehmood Ansari collapsed following a confrontation with the youths, one of whom brandished a knife, according to authorities.

The investigation is continuing in order to identify and charge any additional people involved in the robbery, Tyner said.

“We know that this investigation is very important to our community,” Atlantic City police interim Officer-in-Charge James Sarkos said Tuesday. “Our detectives have diligently and expeditiously worked with our partners from the Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office to hold each individual accountable who were involved in these crimes.”

The most recent arrests were of four Atlantic City girls, two 14-year-olds, one 15-year-old and one 11-year-old. Charges include robbery, theft, shoplifting, criminal mischief and conspiracy to commit robbery, according to Tyner. The latest charges include the incident at Ansari’s City Souvenirs store, as well as an alleged incident at a another Boardwalk store just before that. All four were taken to the Harborfields youth detention facility in Egg Harbor City.

Police responded to City Souvenirs on April 1 for a report of “a male with a knife,” according to Tuesday’s release. Responding officers were advised by the city’s surveillance center personnel that multiple juveniles were “damaging the store and assaulting individuals.”

Authorities said the 12-year-old boy, while attempting to steal items from City Souvenirs, brandished a knife and threatened Ansari. Ansari collapsed shortly after officers arrived and was not breathing. A bystander initiated CPR, which a city police officer took over until medical personnel arrived. Ansari was transported to AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center, City Campus, where he was pronounced dead.

The 12-year-old boy and a 14-year-old girl were arrested the next day, Tyner said.

Ansari’s death spurred calls by local shop owners for more of a police presence on the Boardwalk and more programs for teenagers in the city. A 2018 state-commissioned report called the city’s youth its “forgotten citizens.”

“I think ACPD is doing their job and the city is working with police to get this resolved,” said Amer Kashmiri, president of the Atlantic City Merchants Association. “And I’m hoping that the family of Mr. Ansari get justice and that peace will be brought to the city.”

Staff Writer Molly Shelly contributed to this report.

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Damon Tyner Atlantic County prosecutor

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More than 15,000 New Jersey hospitality jobs lost due to pandemic, study finds

More than 15,000 hotel jobs in New Jersey were lost in the past year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new study from the American Hotel & Lodging Association.

From 2019 to 2020, the number of hotel-based jobs in the state dropped from 54,498 to 38,647.

“Clearly the pandemic had an impact on the entire hospitality sector,” said Michael Chait, president of the Greater Atlantic City Chamber. “The restrictions, specifically capacity and travel restrictions, caused a lot of your hospitality sector employers to reduce staff.”

So far in 2021, that number has gone back up some to 45,598, but an estimated 8,900 jobs could still be lost in the seven months remaining in the year, according to the study.

Chait believes the industry, especially in Atlantic City, will bounce back.

“We (the resort) are a tourism and travel destination, and I do think there is going to be a very strong desire for people to dine out, travel and stay overnight again,” Chait said. “I think you’re going to see the hospitality industry bounce back.”

However, Chait said, the industry is now grappling with a labor shortage.

“They are not getting a lot of applicants for a variety of reasons,” Chait said. “There are some people who have a fear to go back because of the pandemic, the additional $300 from unemployment, and some employees have transitioned to other jobs all together because of the closures and uncertainty in the industry.”

To combat the shortage of labor, Chait said the chamber is partnering with the Casino Association of New Jersey and the Atlantic County Workforce Development Board to promote the open positions in hospitality around the resort.

The hospitality industry lost 3.1 million jobs nationwide during the pandemic, which represents more than one-third of all unemployed people in the country, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“With hotels expected to end 2021 down 500,000 jobs, based on the pre-pandemic ratio, an additional 1.3 million hotel-supported jobs are in jeopardy this year without additional support from Congress,” the study states.

The study said urban areas have been hit particularly hard, including Atlantic City.

Employment at the resort’s nine casinos dropped rapidly due to statewide shutdowns intended to mitigate the spread of the virus.

In August, the rate of employment had dropped 21% from the year before.

“Conventions and meetings are a key factor in returning hotel employment to pre-pandemic levels. In 2019, guests attending conventions and meetings used 390,566 room nights in Atlantic City, compared to 99,142 in 2020, according to Meet AC,” Jane Bokunewicz, coordinator for the Lloyd D. Levenson Institute of Gaming, Hospitality & Tourism at Stockton University, said in an email. “These room nights are especially important to employment because they help to smooth demand in off-peak times, keeping staffing levels more consistent.”

While being closed for more than 100 days due to the pandemic, the Atlantic City casino industry saw a $112 million operating loss in the second quarter of 2020.

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