Lawmakers grill N.J. health commissioner on N.J.’s COVID response
New Jersey Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli defended the state's COVID response during a budget hearing Monday. (Courtesy of New Jersey Governor's Office)
Lawmakers sparred with Department of Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli during a budget hearing Monday, criticizing the state’s COVID response and blasting Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration for the high death toll in the state’s nursing homes.
Persichilli appeared in front of the Assembly Budget Committee to discuss some of the initiatives the Department of Health wants the next budget to fund, like expanded maternal care, increased aid for social programs, and broader access to health insurance.
But during the two-hour hearing, Persichilli largely ended up defending her department’s decisions during the pandemic and its oversight of long-term care centers in particular. More than 8,500 nursing home residents have died of COVID-related illness in the last two years.
“It’s the elephant in the room, I’m sure, talking about long-term care,” Persichilli said Monday.
Republicans have criticized Murphy’s administration for what they say are mistakes the state made during the early months of the pandemic that contributed to the grim death toll in nursing homes. An investigation conducted by consultant Manatt Health in June 2020 detailed how nursing homes were severely understaffed and underprepared, and recommended major reforms and oversight across the state’s 660 long-term care centers.
The state Department of Health has implemented nearly all of the recommendations from Manatt’s 100-page report, Persichilli said.
Persichilli is requesting $500,000 in the next budget for what she calls a mission-critical team, a group of workers, including infection control prevention experts and educators, who would descend on long-term care centers before they go into crisis mode.
She said her department continues to track outbreaks in the state and in nursing homes. More than 5,000 inspectors have visited long-term care facilities since mid-2020, she said.
In a heated exchange, Assemblyman Hal Wirths (R-Sussex) said he’d never forgive the state government for telling people not to leave their homes when coronavirus cases began to skyrocket in March 2020.
“To allow a government entity to lock us down like that is unforgivable. But I want to see if you think it was worth those two years of locking down,” he said. “Would you do that again? Would you put the folks of New Jersey what we went through the last two years?”
While some COVID restrictions remained until recently, like mask mandates in schools and capacity limits, Murphy rescinded his stay-at-home order three months after he issued it.
“I’m sitting here as the commissioner of health, and our mission at the Health Department is to help New Jerseyans live long, healthy lives and reach their highest potentials, and we’ll make decisions based on the circumstances at the time that will hopefully promote that. And that’s the only answer I have,” Persichilli responded.
Assemblywoman Nancy Munoz (R-Union), a registered nurse who volunteered in hospitals and vaccine clinics during the pandemic, cited a study claiming strict lockdowns had “little to no public health effects” but imposed enormous economic and social costs, and data saying masks are ineffective for children.
Munoz asked what health officials have learned since the first days of the pandemic.
Persichilli said officials didn’t know the virus was airborne while New Jersey was dealing with the first wave of COVID in 2020. And when COVID tests first became available on March 17, 2020, their use was limited to people with symptoms, she said.
“As we look back on March and April, hopefully we’ll never, ever repeat that. And as we go forward, we learn more about the virus — that is still an unreliable foe, there’s no getting away from it — and how we handle surges will be much different because of vaccination,” she said.
Another lesson learned, Persichilli said, is that “one size does not fit all,” and future decisions should be made regionally, separating North, Central, and South Jersey.
Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly (D-Passaic) asked the commissioner how the state reaches out to Latino and Black residents who haven’t yet received COVID vaccines. Latinos make up 20% of the population but account for only 17% of vaccinated residents, while Black residents make up 13% of the population but account for 9% of vaccinated people.
Persichilli said working with local health departments and faith-based organizations helps reach urban communities. The department also wants to use some funds for an ambassador program to embed people in “hard-to-reach populations” and offer education and information on vaccines, she said.
Assemblyman John McKeon (D-Essex) questioned why the state keeps some vaccination sites open if people aren’t showing up to get the shot.
More than 7.7 million people have received at least one dose of a vaccine since vaccines became available in December 2020. About 3.5 million people have also received booster shots, according to the state’s COVID-19 dashboard.
Health officials want to keep sites open so every resident is within a 15-minute walk or 30-minute drive to a vaccination clinic, even if it’s open once a week, Persichilli said. Roughly 750,000 people are not within that distance of a site, she added.
Some lawmakers asked about staffing issues, both in the Department of Health and in hospitals. Persichilli didn’t say how many openings are in her department, but said it needs more professional clinical staffing.
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