Why this coastal county in New Jersey has the state’s highest COVID-19 death rate

Ocean County, a coastal region in central New Jersey, is home to some of the state’s most exclusive waterfront communities and its fastest growing city, Lakewood.

A Republican stronghold in a state controlled by Democrats, the county is largely suburban, comprising more land than any other county in New Jersey.

Now, as the United States begins to weave a path through the third year of the pandemic, Ocean County also faces a stubborn public health challenge: a large portion of its residents have not been vaccinated against the coronavirus, and Its COVID-19 mortality rate is the highest in the state.

State figures show the county has recorded 459 virus-related deaths for every 100,000 residents. It surpasses the fatality level in every other county in New Jersey, a prosperous, well-educated and densely populated state still struggling to limit its virus mortality. New Jersey has the fifth highest death rate from COVID-19 in the United States after Mississippi, Arizona, Alabama and West Virginia.

Explanations for the high number of deaths in Ocean County include a large percentage of residents over the age of 85 and low vaccination rates among those 65 and younger, a factor that some studies suggest is most likely stemming from partisan politics. more closely related.

The county also has a large and growing Orthodox Jewish population, which was hit hard during the first wave of the pandemic and whose vaccination rates are much lower than the statewide average, reflecting similar trends in Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods in New York.

In the 2020 presidential election, when New Jersey supported Joe Biden by a huge margin, Ocean County voters supported then-President Donald Trump by nearly 29 percentage points – the largest share of any Republican stronghold in the state.

“At this stage of the game, whoever made the decision to get it has got it,” John Ducey, the longtime Democratic mayor of the 74,000-person Ocean County township Brick, said of the vaccine.

“Many people who are not in favor of getting a vaccine make it on a political decision,” he said, “they don’t want their bodies invaded.”

COVID-19 vaccines have been proven to significantly reduce the risk of serious illness or death, especially for people who have also had booster shots.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, of Ocean County residents eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine, only 58.4% have had at least two shots of Moderna’s or Pfizer-BioNtech’s vaccine or one shot from Johnson & Johnson. This is significantly lower than the statewide vaccination rate of 79.8% and the nationwide rate of 69.8%.

Lakewood, which is home to a thriving Orthodox Jewish community and the largest settlement in the county, has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the region. Only 40% of Lakewood residents over the age of 5 are fully vaccinated; Of these, 38% of residents eligible for a booster shot have received one, according to the state health department.

In New York, Borough Park, the center of Orthodox Jewish life in Brooklyn, has one of the city’s lowest vaccination rates. But it leaves Lakewood far behind: About 53% of residents age 5 and older in a Brooklyn neighborhood are vaccinated.

Most of Ocean County’s 2,925 confirmed and potentially fatal viruses occurred in the first year of the pandemic, before vaccines or therapies to treat the disease were widely available. The average number of daily deaths, which reached 18 in May 2020, has now come down to almost one a day.

Still, the deaths have been steady: Since last spring, the death toll in Ocean County every quarter has exceeded the number of deaths three months ago.

In Brick, where about 64% of residents eligible for COVID-19 shots are vaccinated, about 28% of the 357 virus-related deaths occurred after the vaccine became widely available, according to county data.

Still, Ducey said he opposed the vaccine mandate.

“There are people out there who don’t want the vaccine, and I think it should be left to them,” said Ducey, who has been vaccinated and got a booster shot. “That’s the great thing about our country: We have the freedom of choice.”

As the worst days of the pandemic fade from memory and politicians plot a road toward normalcy, persuading more people to vaccinate infectious-disease experts such as Dr. Meg Fisher, a pediatrician working as a consultant in New Jersey. Health Commissioner.

For them, it is considered important to elevate vaccination rates to protect the wider community from new variants, such as the highly transmissible Omicron subvariant, BA.2, which is now the dominant variant of the coronavirus in the United States and around the world.

“Overcoming people’s complacency – it just became very important,” Fischer said. “We need young people to be vaccinated.”

A nationwide study by the Pew Research Center found that 73% of people who identified as Democrats and were eligible for a booster shot, 55% of those surveyed, were Republicans. The study shows that young Republicans were particularly hesitant to vaccinate, with only 52% of those between the ages of 18 and 29 being vaccinated, compared to 88% of Democrats in the same age group. had gone.

“The biggest difference we’ve seen has been partisanship,” said Pew Research Center associate director of research Alec Tyson. “It’s not narrowing. If anything, it’s getting even wider.”

Ocean County, which hugs the Jersey Shore and is a retirement destination, has the fourth-highest percentage of residents over the age of 85 in the United States, behind three equally large counties in Florida, census data show. At a county hospital, community medical center, 73% of patients qualify for Medicare, federally funded health care available to people 65 and older and some young people with disabilities.

“When you put that in perspective, it’s not surprising that the death rate would be higher,” said Patrick Ahern, CEO of the medical center in nearby Toms River.

Ocean County Chief Health Officer Danielle Regene said her office has built an extensive network of vaccination sites; He said none of the county’s 649,000 residents lived more than 2 miles from a location offering COVID-19 vaccines.

The county’s low vaccination rates do not apply to all age groups. Among people over the age of 65, who are considered most vulnerable to serious illness, 88% of them are vaccinated, which is just 6 percent less than the statewide rate.

Dimitri Svarnas and his wife, Janice, are registered Republicans who are strong supporters of Trump.

The couple were vaccinated for taking the cruise and traveling out of the country, but were still making decisions about booster shots.

“You can’t control my body,” Swarnas, 76, of Brick’s, where he was first vaccinated last year, said outside ShopRite. “No one controls my body.”

To entice young people, Ocean County has run pop-up clinics that jeopardize incentives like Six Flags Great Adventure, free admission to an amusement park in Jackson, and seasonal access to the park’s popular safari rides.

In Lakewood, where nearly half of residents are under the age of 18, shots were offered on Sundays during events that included a children’s bounce house, free meals and mini golf.

“There’s a general belief — and it’s being fed by a lot of people — that says natural infection is better,” Regene said. “My concern is the resurgence of vaccine-preventable disease.”

Dr. Dovid Friedman, the Center for Health Education Medicine and Dentistry in Lakewood, is CEO of CHEMED, a community-based health care provider that receives federal funding to provide primary care services to residents. He said the original government message failed to give enough credence to the belief of many Jewish residents that being infected with the virus was almost equivalent to vaccination.

Regarding the primary role of the COVID-19 vaccine, he said, there is also widespread misconception.

“People get confused ‘Why is there still a disease? They said. “But the vaccine was not designed to prevent disease. It was designed to prevent hospitalizations and deaths.”

To try to increase vaccination rates among the county’s large number of Orthodox Jewish people, the state launched a targeted advertising campaign in early February, which was immediately described as culturally inappropriate. Digital billboards depicted a smiling Jewish man, but the hat, hairstyle and necklace he wore did not accurately reflect the religious customs of the Lakewood residents.

The state quickly pulled the ads and shut down the advertising companies.

The new print ads focus on the importance of vaccinations as a way to “boost” the body’s natural defences, said Eli Rosenfeld, CEO of Joseph Jacobs Advertising, the newly hired firm. The ads emphasize the vaccine’s ability to limit disruptions to the “normal rhythm” of life, including school and family activities, as well as the responsibility of each resident to keep the wider community safe, he said.

David Zimal, manager of an e-commerce site in Lakewood, is one of the people the revamped ad campaign is trying to reach.

He said he had COVID-19 during the first wave of the pandemic in March 2020, and had not been re-infected, even though he had not been vaccinated and had close contact with people who tested positive for the virus. has tested positive.

“It only further proves the power of my immunity for me,” Jomal, 29, said. He said he’d probably get a shot if his job was in jeopardy.

“It depends,” he said, “how uncomfortable they made my life.”

Leave a Comment