Ocean County Health Services Overwhelmed after Murphy Announces Vaccines for Seniors, Leaving Door Open for Vaccine Scammers

TOMS RIVER, NJ –  After Governor Murphy announced that beginning on Thursday, senior citizens over the ages of 65-years-old and those with co-morbidities can sign up to get the COVID-19 vaccine, calls to the Ocean County Department of Health and County offices shutdown the switchboard.

The problem was, nobody in Murphy’s administration warned the county or county health officials of his announcement, nor was there any preparation for Ocean County to administer the vaccines.  Now, the county is calling for the private sector to help out.

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“Over the last several months, our Administration has built the infrastructure and laid the groundwork to support New Jersey’s COVID-19 vaccination demand,” said Governor Murphy. “Based on recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, we are ready to begin ramping up our vaccination efforts exponentially and are confident in our ability to provide every willing New Jersey resident with a vaccine when it is available and they are eligible. Expanding access to vaccine to individuals in these categories is critical as we know they are at greater risk for severe COVID-19 illness and death,” said Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli. “Eighty percent of COVID-19 deaths in New Jersey have been among those 65 and older and overall 67 percent of deaths had one or more underlying conditions reported.”

Ocean County officials agree that while opening up the COVID 19 vaccination to more of the public has its benefits, it also raises concerns over the supply of vaccines and the timely distribution.

Murphy on Wednesday said he didn’t want a case like in New York City where the state threw out unused batches of vaccine or in Florida where seniors waited hours on line to get vaccines, but it’s looking, in Ocean County at least, that a disaster is waiting to happen.

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“The bottom-line is we need all hands on deck,” said Ocean County Commissioner Gerry P. Little, who serves as liaison to the Ocean County Health Department. “We need all of our hospitals, all of our pharmacies, all of our supermarkets, all of our doctors’ offices to be given the ability to deliver this vaccine to the public.”

“Government cannot accomplish this alone,” said the Director of the Ocean County Board of Commissioners Gary Quinn. “It has to be complete cooperation with all facets of the health care system.”

Ocean County has been told by the state and the federal government that more vaccines will be made available in the near future.

The socialized distribution of vaccine in New Jersey could lead to a black market supply chain, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.   HHS warns that COVID-19 vaccine scammers are already working their scams in senior communities.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General is alerting the public about fraud schemes related to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19). Scammers are using telemarketing calls, text messages, social media platforms, and door-to-door visits to perpetrate COVID-19-related scams.

“Fraudsters are offering COVID-19 tests, HHS grants, and Medicare prescription cards in exchange for personal details, including Medicare information. However, these services are unapproved and illegitimate. These scammers use the coronavirus pandemic to benefit themselves, and beneficiaries face potential harm. The personal information collected can be used to fraudulently bill federal health care programs and commit medical identity theft,” the HHS said.

Seniors and families desperate for COVID-19 vaccines could fall victim to such scams.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General (HHS-OIG), and Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) are warning the public about several emerging fraud schemes related to COVID19 vaccines.

Ocean County, with the largest senior population in New Jersey, is particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 vaccine scams.

“The FBI, HHS-OIG, and CMS have received complaints of scammers using the public’s interest in COVID-19 vaccines to obtain personally identifiable information (PII) and money through various schemes. We continue to work diligently with law enforcement partners and the private sector to identify cyber threats and fraud in all forms,” HHS said in a statement

So far in Ocean County, the Ocean County Health Department has been the lead agency in providing the vaccine against COVID 19, having distributed about 5,000 shots of the Moderna vaccine at the RWJ Barnabas Health Care arena in Toms River. In addition, the vaccine is available at some supermarkets in the County and some health care providers.

“With almost 200,000 seniors living in Ocean County, the largest population of seniors in the state, we need far more distribution venues and certainly a much greater number of actual vaccines to accommodate everyone currently allowed to get it,” Little said. “As for now, we are urging our residents to be patient as we are working as quickly as possible to accomplish the task ahead of us.”

Since the state announced that starting on Jan. 14, all New Jersey residents age 65 and older, and all those aged 16 to 64 with chronic medical conditions (receiving the Pfizer vaccine) and aged 18 to 64 (receiving the Moderna vaccine) are eligible to get the COVID 19 vaccination, the volume of people attempting to schedule appointments on the health department website and calling the health department has escalated tremendously resulting in the temporary technical issues with the website and call center.

In response, additional call capacity is being put into place.  “We had 10,000 contacts within minutes after the announcement,” Little said. “There were 25,000 appointments that already were made taking us to the end of February.”

Ocean County has appealed to Gov. Murphy’s staff to require hospitals to expand the vaccine distribution in order to serve the public that can now get it.

“All of our slots are currently filled while we await more vaccine,” he said.

With the county out of vaccines, scammers can use the opportunity to move in, offering residents “private” inoculation services, while data mining their personal medical and financial account information, billing customers ahead of time for a vaccine that will never be administered, clearing out personal bank and credit accounts at the same time.

Regenye said the state announcement opening up the vaccines to a larger segment of the population while unanticipated to come so early in the distribution, was still welcome.
“We are averaging about 500 vaccinations a day at the arena at Toms River High School North and ramping up to give out 700 daily,” he said. “We can do more so long as we have more staff and more vaccine. We are just awaiting a timeline for its arrival.”

Regenye noted that once the state made its announcement, more than 100,000 people tried to make appointments on the county health department website.

“For every one person that was able to get an appointment, five or 10 couldn’t,” he said. “We are doing all we can to accommodate everyone but we need all health care providers, from hospitals to home health services to help.:

HHS says the public should be aware of the following potential indicators of fraudulent

Advertisements or offers for early access to a vaccine upon payment of a deposit or fee
Requests asking you to pay out of pocket to obtain the vaccine or to put your name on a COVID-19 vaccine waiting list
Offers to undergo additional medical testing or procedures when obtaining a vaccine
Marketers offering to sell and/or ship doses of a vaccine, domestically or internationally, in exchange for payment of a deposit or fee
Unsolicited emails, telephone calls, or personal contact from someone claiming to be from a medical office, insurance company, or COVID-19 vaccine center
requesting personal and/or medical information to determine recipients’ eligibility to participate in clinical vaccine trials or obtain the vaccine
Claims of FDA approval for a vaccine that cannot be verified
Advertisements for vaccines through social media platforms, email, telephone calls, online, or from unsolicited/unknown sources
Individuals contacting you in person, by phone, or by email to tell you the government or government officials require you to receive a COVID-19 vaccine

Tips to avoid COVID-19 vaccine-related fraud:

Consult your state’s health department website for up-to-date information about authorized vaccine distribution channels and only obtaining a vaccine through such channels.
Check the FDA’s website (fda.gov) for current information about vaccine emergency use authorizations.
Consult your primary care physician before undergoing any vaccination.
Don’t share your personal or health information with anyone other than known and trusted medical professionals.
Check your medical bills and insurance explanation of benefits (EOBs) for any suspicious claims and promptly reporting any errors to your health insurance provider.
Follow guidance and recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other trusted medical professionals.

 General online/cyber fraud prevention techniques:

Verify the spelling of web addresses, websites, and email addresses that look trustworthy but may be imitations of legitimate websites.
Ensure operating systems and applications are updated to the most current versions.
Update anti-malware and anti-virus software and conduct regular network scans.
Do not enable macros on documents downloaded from an email unless necessary and after ensuring the file is not malicious.
Do not communicate with or open emails, attachments, or links from unknown individuals.
Never provide personal information of any sort via email; be aware that many emails requesting your personal information may appear to be legitimate.
Use strong two-factor authentication if possible, using biometrics, hardware tokens, or authentication apps.
▪ Disable or remove unneeded software applications.

If you believe you have been the victim of a COVID-19 fraud, immediately report it to the FBI (ic3.gov, tips.fbi.gov, or 1-800-CALL-FBI) or HHS OIG (tips.hhs.gov or 1-800-HHSTIPS).