New Jersey Vaccination Learning Network Looks to Carry Insights Beyond the Pandemic


This post was originally published on the NJHI web site on July 13, 2021. It has been updated to reflect the New Jersey Vaccination Learning Network’s efforts as they evolve.

Since the initial phase of the national COVID-19 vaccination campaign in December 2020, New Jersey Health Initiatives (NJHI) has been working with state leaders and community-based partners and service providers to design a multi-faceted strategy to vaccinate hard-to-reach New Jerseyans. As part of this strategy, a number of communities have developed models for leveraging trust to engage local influencers in outreach efforts and to take the vaccine to individuals and families experiencing homelessness, homebound residents, seniors and other vulnerable populations. These nonprofits and service providers have come together as the New Jersey Vaccination Learning Network, where they share their accomplishments, lessons learned and challenges with each other, with NJHI and the state, to benefit every eligible New Jerseyan who is interested in taking the COVID-19 vaccine. Six months since its inception, the Network continues to expand, both in size and in envisioning opportunities to build on this work more broadly and ensure no one is left behind.

The timeline below highlights pivotal moments for COVID-19 vaccination efforts throughout the state, as experienced by the partners in the NJ Vaccination Learning Network. Select news coverage and milestones are featured in the graphic to the right.

March 2021: As a statewide grantmaking program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, NJHI’s relationships with service providers, local nonprofits, resident leaders, school administrators, businesses, law enforcement and healthcare partners, philanthropic peers and colleagues at the state and county levels helped us identify five community-focused collaborations that had the partners and ability to quickly move efforts to improve vaccine access specifically for people experiencing homelessness or housing insecurity. Each of these five organizations received a $15,000 grant from NJHI to work with local partners to develop micro and mobile vaccination models: Acenda Integrated Health, Greater Bergen Community Action, Norwescap, Rowan University and the United Way of Greater Union County.  NJHI began convening these grantees and their peers for a weekly NJ Vaccination Learning Network session in partnership with the NJ Department of Health (NJ DOH). This relationship provided the Network with reliable and actionable information early in the vaccine roll-out. In addition, it provided the State with updates about the work happening at the community level to support the State’s goal of equitable vaccine access and a minimum of a 70% vaccination rate in every community.

April 2021: Current and former grantees funded through NJHI’s Communities Moving to Action, Next Generation Community Leaders, Upstream Action Acceleration and Small Communities Forging Hyperlocal Data Collaboratives initiatives and the BUILD Health Challenge reached out to tell us how their work was evolving to provide equitable vaccine access:

  • In Freehold, the Neighborhood Connections to Health partners were identifying the needs of farmworkers and day laborers.
  • Within one weekend, the Housing Authority of the City of Elizabeth (HACE) had coordinated a vaccination event for senior residents in partnership with a local pharmacy. The bilingual HACE team walked from floor to floor to provide residents with information about the vaccine and registered interested residents then and there. Using shopping carts to bring the correct number of vaccine doses into the buildings, vaccinators administered the doses to those who were registered. The residents never needed to leave their apartments. They simply left their doors open for the post-vaccination observation period.
  • Groundwork Elizabeth, a HACE partner through the Shaping Elizabeth coalition, shared how they were engaging youth and partnering with Mayor Bollwage and Trinitas Regional Medical Center to produce a public service announcement addressing misinformation about the vaccine. Watch the public service announcement.
  • In South Jersey, Holly City Development Corporation shared that they were leveraging the existing data around their food distribution work to collaborate with the Millville Housing Authority and identify seniors who likely could not reach a vaccination site.

NJHI invited these communities to join the NJ Vaccination Learning Network. Each week, the Network participants shared their success and challenges, and became thought partners in this dynamic work. Together, they explored strategies for addressing misinformation about the vaccine. They shared their observations and concerns about the vaccine megasites’ hours of operation, and which residents do not have access to reliable, affordable round-trip transportation to the sites. The Network recognized that high-risk residents might not have access to technology or even have an address to register for a vaccination appointment, or that there are residents who are undocumented or have other concerns about sharing their personal information to register for an appointment. From the logistics of reallocating vaccinators from the megasites to community-based sites, to asking public safety partners to consider plainclothes attire, partnering with the NJ COVID Community Corps to share information about the vaccine and vaccination events with residents, and building a culture of trust, especially amid and following the pause of the J&J vaccine, the Network partners, NJHI and  NJDOH leaders have continued to make new connections, exchange resources and uplift each other.

May – June 2021: The NJ Vaccination Learning Network’s growth and conversations inspired a number of additional participating community collaboratives to build upon previous phases of their efforts. These partners proposed ideas to educate, engage and provide the COVID vaccine to youth and their families, individuals returning from incarceration, domestic workers and more through mobile clinics, Family Success Centers, schools and safe community events. Ideas of developing teams of community ambassadors and building residents’ leadership and community organizing skills to strengthen their civic muscle also emerged as the Network takes a broader view of this vaccination work as an opportunity to align existing resources and to make them more readily accessible to those who are most vulnerable. NJHI awarded 13 grants to support these efforts.

July 2021 – August 2021: In anticipation of the upcoming school year, the Network has coordinated virtual and in-person outreach efforts and aligned their work to take trusted information about the vaccine to parents and provide testing and the shot to eligible youth and their families. At the community level, this work appeared as:

NJHI also awarded three more grants to increase vaccination rates in multiple vulnerable New Jersey communities including Burlington County, Paterson and Passaic City, and Garfield.

Six months after their initial convening, the NJ Vaccination Learning Network partners are identifying opportunities for policy and systems change within their own organizations as they navigate a return to the office and to their core missions. As an example, some have expressed a commitment to weaving in lessons from the pandemic into the municipal housing planning process and trauma-informed initiatives already underway throughout the state. The partners are also building new relationships and strengthening existing ones by sharing their takeaways from the Network’s weekly calls with their local health officers and nonprofit, school district, faith-based and healthcare colleagues. One particularly inspiring story is that for families in North Jersey, CUMAC and the Housing Authority of the City of Elizabeth are collaborating across their communities to connect vulnerable families with available housing. This emergency feeding agency in Paterson and the municipal agency in Elizabeth connected through the Network.

September 2021: NJHI continues to seek out the communities with the greatest need and learn about the work happening on a local level to reach them and provide support and relationships that could move us closer to a more equitable recovery. There is a growing sentiment among the Network that this effort needs to continue beyond COVID. We are optimistic that this Network can be the vanguard of a movement toward overall systems change. It could be the groundwork for collaboration among service providers working with residents and within communities and thinking beyond their organizational missions and focus to see how they are interrelated in ensuring everyone has what they need to live the healthiest life possible and the value of sharing these insights with leaders and decision-makers at all levels.

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