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NJ first lady urges COVID vaccines in communities of color: 'Leaving no stone unturned'

NJ first lady urges COVID vaccines in communities of color: 'Leaving no stone unturned'

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ASBURY PARK — Tammy Murphy, wife of Gov. Phil Murphy, toured a vaccination clinic here Tuesday that has been on the front line of Asbury Park's battle against COVID-19, particularly in the quest to get the vaccine to communities of color.

The Visiting Nurse Association of Central Jersey, which operates the clinic at the Asbury Park Senior Center on Springwood Avenue, in the predominately Black west side of the city, has administered some 25,000 shots so far.

It has no plans to stop anytime soon, even as some vaccine sites have curtailed vaccine distributions in the face of diminished demand. The effort continued apace Tuesday, as people continued to come through the doors, seeking protection against a virus that has killed more than 23,000 people in New Jersey.

The New Jersey first lady's stop at the senior center is part of an ongoing effort to encourage people in New Jersey's communities of color, which have been disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus, to get vaccinated.

In an upstairs room arranged with socially distanced chairs, Murphy chatted with 24-year-old Micah Kerr, of Neptune, as a nurse prepared to inject the vaccine into Kerr's arm.

Murphy said her husband's administration was "leaning in hard" to make vaccines available to everyone in the state, even in historically disenfranchised neighborhoods like Asbury Park's west side.

"I think that New Jersey has been, honestly, at the leading edge on this from the get-go," she said. "We set up the infrastructure here … before we even had the supply."

To address a lagging demand for shots statewide, the state has forged a number of partnerships, including with religious organizations, health clinics and community groups. It has even worked with breweries offering free beer to those who get vaccinated in May, under the "Shot and A Beer" initiative.

The latter arrangements are designed to help share information about vaccine availability, build trust in the science and encourage signups.

"We are challenging ourselves to leave basically no stone unturned," Murphy said.

Yet the task hasn't been easy.

In Monmouth County, only 4% of COVID-19 vaccines have gone to Black people, despite making up 7.5% of the county's population. In addition, only 5% of vaccines have gone to Hispanic residents, though more than 11% of the county's population is Hispanic.

Similar disparities persist in Ocean County, where 2% of shots have gone to Black people and 4% to Hispanic people, though 3.6% of county residents are Black and 9.5% are Hispanic.

Bishop Paul Brown of Neptune's First Pentecostal Church has been part of Asbury Park's effort to get its residents vaccinated. Brown said most of his elderly congregants have embraced getting the COVID-19 shot, but younger members remain hesitant.

Regardless, Brown continues to reach out to other churches and encourage members to take advantage of local vaccine availability.

"They can make the decision as to what they want, but they know where to go (and) who to talk to," Brown said.

More than 800 sites across New Jersey offer COVID-19 vaccinations, and about 98% of the state's residents live within a 15-minute drive of a vaccination site, Murphy said.

"In communities of color, obviously, we've got to focus on them," she said. "You know, I think we all pay a price for historic treatment … because people don't have the trust they should."

COVID-19 has been deadlier for Black and Hispanic Americans than non-Hispanic whites, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Black Americans are 2.8 times as likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19 and nearly twice as likely to die from complications of the virus than non-Hispanic whites, according to the CDC.

Hispanic people are 3 times as likely to be hospitalized and 2.3 times as likely to die than non-Hispanic whites.

"We know that Black and brown communities are disproportionately impacted by COVID and have a higher degree of mortality," said Christopher Rinn, CEO of the Visiting Nurse Association of Central Jersey Community Health Center.

VNACJ's efforts, along with the state's help, have given the organization the ability to vaccinate a higher percentage of the region's Black and Hispanic residents compared to the rest of Monmouth County, Rinn said.

"We have to follow the science to beat this disease," Rinn said. "To get out of the pandemic, we have to take care of … the most vulnerable in our communities."

Asbury Park Mayor John Moor said vaccines are now in abundant supply in the city.

"(Vaccine availability has) improved immensely," he said. "Anybody out there that needs this shot, there's no reason they can't get the shot within 24 hours."

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