For all the focus on getting senior citizens vaccinated against COVID-19 to secure and reopen nursing homes, homebound seniors have gotten less attention and been slower to inoculate.

Nancy Fitterer, president and chief executive officer of the Home Care and Hospice Association of New Jersey, said home health care agencies are uniquely situated to help, given that their nurses regularly do this work with flu shots.

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“When it came to the vaccinations, the Department of Health and I worked really closely in December to try to come up with a plan for homebound, and it never really took shape,” Fitterer said at an Assembly Aging and Senior Services Committee meeting.

Many agencies are working with local health departments – but not all, Fitterer said, given the cumbersome rules. It has been a slow process to get going, she said, as doses weren’t being allocated directly to providers.

“We were kind of poised to really move forward, and then the J&J vaccine, the shutdown happened, and that put everything to a standstill,” Fitterer said. “It’s now back.”

About 7,000 homebound New Jerseyans have gotten their COVID-19 vaccines in their homes, but the need exceeds that. Katie York of the AARP New Jersey said a centralized statewide system for vaccine appointments is required.

“New Jersey’s current localized and decentralized system for homebound residents is difficult to navigate, and we are concerned that it leaves too many behind,” York said.

The state last week announced a website and phone number – 855-568-0545 – for requesting in-home vaccinations. But it’s a survey, not an appointment system, and the state follows up to tell a person how to connect a person with a local vaccine provider.

Eighty-seven percent of seniors in New Jersey have gotten at least one vaccine dose. Almost 75% are fully vaccinated.

“We are seeing a little bit of light. But again, it’s the fear that seniors still have. A lot of them that are still not vaccinated, we are trying to reach them,” said Lorraine Joewono, executive director of the Bergen County Division of Senior Services.

In addition to vaccinating hard-to-reach seniors, concerns about food insecurity remain an issue.

Triada Stampas, impact leader for the Community Food Bank of New Jersey, said COVID hasn’t just impacted seniors’ ability to go shop for their own food or go to local food pantries.

“Seniors who volunteer at food pantries are less likely to show up to volunteer, and we’ve had some closures among both our regular food pantries and some of our senior sites as a result,” Stampas said.

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Jeanne Martin, executive director of Meals on Wheels North Jersey, said she worries more hunger problems are on the horizon when eviction moratoriums end.

“People who have not been paying the rent for a year – six months, a year – what’s going to happen when they now have to pay that?” Martin said.

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