New Jersey's educators and child care professionals joined the state's growing list of residents eligible to sign up for COVID-19 vaccination appointments this weekend, more than a week earlier than Gov. Phil Murphy previously announced.
To mark the start of vaccine eligibility for teachers and child care professionals, Murphy toured the Gloucester County vaccine megasite at Rowan College of South Jersey as educators received their first doses of the vaccine. The governor said the key to reopening schools safety is getting more shots in the arms of teachers.
"We know many of our educators and others who were eligible already for one reason or another - a chronic condition for instance - and will have already been vaccinated, but we also know that there are many thousands who are newly eligible," Murphy said Saturday.
Teachers receiving their first shots over the weekend at the state's highest performing megasite said the vaccine is a "game changer" in getting everyone back in classrooms.
Get Tri-state area news and weather forecasts to your inbox. Sign up for NBC New York newsletters.
"We're so excited to be able to educate our students and to be able to get them back into the classroom and have a normalcy of life again," said Theresa Kerney, a cosmetology teacher in Deptford Township.
Schools in New Jersey from the start of the school year have had the option of in-person, hybrid or entirely virtual education models. Vaccines could help in planning for in-person learning.
Murphy said the state is working to give teachers better access and flexibility to get their shots so it will not interrupt the school day.
The governor had announced last week that educators would be included in the next wave of New Jerseyans to become eligible on March 15 -- food workers, postal employees, and thousands of others were included in that group. Murphy unexpectedly tweeted on Friday that educators were becoming eligible sooner.
Other groups also moving up in line to get access to the vaccine on March 15 include NJ Transit workers, Motor Vehicle Commission workers, migrant farm workers, people experiencing homelessness, members of tribal communities, probation officers, and others in public safety, the first-term Democrat said.
Then, on March 29, "frontline essential workers" will be added to those eligible. The additional workers who can get the vaccine before the end of the month include clergy, food and restaurant workers, grocery store workers, elections personnel, social service workers, hospitality workers, warehouse workers, those in the medical supply chain and more.
Click here for details on the state's COVID-19 vaccine program.
As of Sunday, New Jersey has surpassed 2.4 million people getting at least one shot. It took 55 days for the state to reach 1 million shots and just 20 days to climb to 2 million, the governor said.
More than 815,000 people having already gotten both doses of either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines. Health care workers, first responders, older people, people with certain pre-existing conditions and smokers are among the millions currently qualified for vaccines in the Garden State.
The addition of the recently approved Johnson & Johnson single-dose vaccine is adding to the state's availability of vaccines, Murphy said. An estimated 70,000 doses of the nation's third vaccine were expected to arrive in the state last week to bolster inoculation efforts.
There are still others who aren't included in the groups qualified for vaccines. The addition of teachers to the state's vaccine program should extend to those working in colleges and universities, according to the group representing teachers in the state.
"The sooner educators are vaccinated, the sooner our entire state is safer," New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) President Marie Blistan said in a news release Monday. "We call on the administration to immediately extend that access to employees in higher education who are equally as exposed and equally as critical to fully reopening our state for in-person instruction."
"At every level, New Jersey educators have worked tirelessly to educate our students and have advocated tirelessly to protect them and our communities throughout this pandemic by demanding high standards for health and safety," Blistan continued while saying the NJEA will work with Murphy on vaccinating educators.
New Jersey has been loosening some coronavirus-related restrictions in recent weeks -- including sporting events -- as daily case counts and hospitalizations have been lower than earlier this year. To date, however, more than 718,000 cases of the coronavirus have been confirmed with PCR tests. At least 21,000 deaths are confirmed to be due to coronavirus-related complications.