After Townsquare News Report, Murphy Warns ‘Bad Actors’ Could Lose Vaccine Supply
Gov. Phil Murphy said Wednesday that it would be cause for outrage if a hospital allowed relatives of executives and wealthy donors to jump the line to get COVID-19 vaccines — and could result in vaccine supplies being cut off.
Murphy was responding to a Tuesday report by the Townsquare News Network that revealed how Hunterdon Medical Center allowed otherwise ineligible people to receive the vaccine in December.
The hospital has said that it contacted relatives of staff, retired employees and volunteers in order to prevent waste of the delicate vaccine, which has to be temperature controlled. While the practice of calling people on waiting lists — even if they're not yet eligible — when people miss appointments is encouraged by public health officials, the fact that so many donors and young relatives also got the vaccine during the first weeks of its availability raises questions about how equitable the vaccine distribution has been.
“If that turns out to be the case, and they volitionally did that in the face of guidance that was crystal clear - that's incredibly offensive,” Murphy said, while acknowledging that he had not yet read the full New Jersey 101.5 report.
“If people monkey around like that, it’s going to impact the number of doses they get from us moving forward,” Murphy added.
The hospital reiterated on Wednesday that the doses would have otherwise been wasted.
"We have confirmed that at least 99% of the doses Hunterdon Healthcare has administered so far have gone to prioritized clinicians, seniors, and at-risk individuals. In the remaining few instances, when no such individuals could be located before a vaccine dose expired, we vaccinated volunteers who were easily contacted, including board members, donors and executives," spokesman Jason VanDiver said in a written statement.
From mid-December and the first weekend of January, only active healthcare personnel were eligible to receive shots under the state mandated plan. It was not until Jan. 14 that the state opened vaccinations to include any adult with high risk medical conditions.
"We believed, and still believe, that it was better to vaccinate someone available to us than to allow any vaccine to go to waste. In no case did we prioritize a donor, board member, or executive over an eligible clinician, senior, or at-risk individual who was available to receive a vaccination," VanDiver said.
"Since the vaccine first became available, we have consistently followed two principles: Prioritize and vaccinate eligible recipients as quickly as possible, in accordance with CDC and New Jersey Department of Health guidelines; and avoid wasting any of the scarce and precious vaccine supply allotted to us."
Hunterdon Medical Center has a clinical staff of nearly 300 physicians and more than 500 nurses, while Hunterdon Healthcare Partners is a network of nearly 230 providers. In addition to technicians and other support staff within the hospital, the network employs certified home healthcare aides and other community healthcare professionals.
At least seven spouses and two young adult children (ages 28 and 30) of medical directors, administrators or executives at the healthcare network received the vaccine on Dec. 26, according to information provided to New Jersey 101.5 by a whistleblower.
The governor on Wednesday noted that there was some confusion in December involving a hospital that did not know whether trustees counted as 1A healthcare personnel. The issue came up at the Dec. 28 state briefing when a reporter for NBC New York asked about Englewood Health.
Murphy and state Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli said that administrative hospital personnel were not counted as eligible under the front-line of healthcare staff.
“It's paid and unpaid health care personnel who are serving in healthcare settings, who have the potential for direct or indirect exposure to infectious material. So for example, trustees are not working in a healthcare setting. They come in for meetings. They don't have either direct or indirect exposure to infectious materials,” Persichilli said at the December briefing.
“There's a reason for that rhythm, there's a reason for that priority and I would say with all due respect, folks like us are not on that list,” Murphy said at the same briefing.
As of Wednesday, 642,613 vaccine doses have been given across New Jersey at a total of 274 vaccination sites, according to state data.
Hunterdon Healthcare had administered 8,000 of those shots and is holding another clinic on Sunday, for which appointments quickly booked to capacity.
On its website, Hunterdon Healthcare posted Wednesday what it called "the real story" about the vaccine VIP situation, saying "We did our best to make sure those extra doses went into someone’s arm — rather than go unused."