TRENTON – Still can’t get an appointment at the Motor Vehicle Commission? The problems with the Johnson & Johnson coronavirus vaccine are partially to blame.

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MVC chief administrator Sue Fulton said although transaction volumes are running 20% ahead of pre-pandemic levels, with 80% of transactions now moved online, she is “not saying things are rosy,” with an average of nearly 10 of 39 agencies closed a day since the start of March due to staff quarantines.

“Until we complete our vaccination program, which we started on J&J and is now on pause, we will have canceled appointments. And that’s an unacceptable burden on the public,” Fulton told the Assembly Budget Committee at a Monday hearing.

Fulton said part of the issue is that around half the available appointments are being taken by people who are renewing licenses and could do that online. The license is mailed to them even if they come in, she said. A fix is being prepared that will prevent those appointments from being taken, freeing them up for people who need an in-person visit to resolve questions about their visas or obtain a REAL ID license.

“It’s unfair. It’s incredibly unfair,” Fulton said. “But there’s just not a good way to do it. The solution to this problem is finishing those vaccinations, which we’re working hard to do, so that we don’t have the closures.”

Assemblywoman Nancy Munoz, R-Union, said it’s absurd how often MVC agencies close and that the vaccinations need to be made a priority.

“We’ve vaccinated half of the state of New Jersey. How is that your agency hasn’t got either at least 50%, 60%, 70% vaccinated, when we have 50% of the state vaccinated?” Munoz said.

Last Tuesday, the Jersey City agency was closed for the day to administer vaccines – but then the concerns about blood clots among some people who gotten the J&J/Janssen vaccine arose, and all doses the vaccine were temporarily halted. A planned closure for vaccines at the Flemington agency last Thursday was scrapped.

“There are a lot of communities that include the kinds of people who work for Motor Vehicle who have not been able to get in to get their vaccinations. They don’t have time. They’re working five to six days a week. And they have not been able to get vaccinated, which is why we have been pushing very hard to get this done at the locations – to bring the vaccine to them and to get it done,” Fulton said.

“The J&J pause really has been a problem for us, but we’re working very hard – nobody wants them vaccinated more than we do. Nobody wants to stop closing more than we do,” she said.

“We need priority for our vaccines. Right now we’re getting it, but if there’s another hitch with vaccines, it’s going to be another disaster,” Fulton said.

Assemblyman Hal Wirths, R-Sussex, said he can’t understand the constant closures for single cases of coronavirus. He said schools don’t close for every positive case and that the whole country would have been closed for the past year if that was the standard.

“Just seems extreme to me,” Wirths said. “Obviously, you want to get that person out who tests positive, get the area sanitized or whatever overnight. But to assume that every single person in that agency has COVID or a possibility of COVID I just think is an extreme measure.”

MVC locations have been closed a combined 1,291 agency days since reopening last July, equaling a 12% closure rate. Since Oct. 1, agencies have been closed due to COVID more than 16% of the time.

Fulton said agencies have to close for up to 14 days when there is a single case among employees because there isn’t enough space behind the counter for workers to distance from each other by 6 feet. Lawmakers said the standard is now 3 feet and that quarantines can be less than 14 days.

“You are only rivaled, by the way, by the Department of Labor,” said Assemblywoman Serena DiMaso, R-Monmouth, referencing the even-larger source of frustration for residents needing unemployment aid.

On Dec. 2, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said a 10-day quarantine can be sufficient is a person in quarantine doesn’t experience symptoms. A person without symptoms who tests negative for COVID-19 could even exit quarantine after seven days, the CDC said, though the agency never dropped its recommendation for a 14-day quarantine.

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Fulton said the MVC doesn’t make unilateral decisions about health protocols and consulted the state Department of Health.

“When the guideline came out that it could be reduced to 10 days, we went to Department of Health and said we’d like to reduce the closure to 10 days. They reviewed our situation and they came back with advice, and the advice was to maintain at 14 days,” Fulton said.

Fulton also said the MVC is operating at about 35% to 40% of its full staff on a typical day, with others unavailable for various reasons – sick leave, dealing with a family member with COVID, quarantining or having child-care issues. There are also vacancies due to retirements and resignations, she said.

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