Murphy doubles down on vaccine mandate, eliminates testing opt-out


NJ Spotlight News

Dec. 8, 2020: Western General Hospital, in Edinburgh, Scotland at the start of the United Kingdom’s COVID-19 vaccination campaign. There, as in New Jersey, health care workers and the elderly are being prioritized to receive the vaccine.


More than 500,000 workers in New Jersey’s health care facilities, nursing homes and prisons will now be required to get fully vaccinated against COVID-19 — including a booster shot. Weekly testing will no longer be an acceptable alternative.

Gov. Phil Murphy signed an executive order Wednesday that revised the vaccine mandate he issued last summer to align it with federal immunization orders, which don’t offer a testing opt-out. He said it would better protect the workforce and those under their care. Currently, these employees must get their initial series of shots or be tested for COVID-19 at least once a week.

“The science tells us that it’s no longer good enough just to receive your primary series (of COVID-19 vaccines), as being boosted is necessary to protect yourself and others around you,” Murphy said at his weekly pandemic briefing, held outside a new federal testing site at Stockton University in Galloway Township. “We’re no longer going to look past those who continue to put their colleagues and, perhaps more importantly, those in their responsibility in danger of COVID. That stops now.”

But some labor leaders said this shift could exacerbate the ongoing staffing shortage among nurses and other health care providers, a fear several Republican lawmakers also raised. While vaccine mandates are embraced by many health care leaders and have been shown to boost immunization rates, some unions in New Jersey and nationwide have raised concerns about forcing members to obtain shots after they have worked so hard to battle the pandemic.

“JNESO understands the need to get people vaccinated to help control the pandemic, but the reality is that we may lose even more of our already strapped nursing and healthcare workforce due to this across-the-board mandate,” said JNESO executive director Douglass Placa, whose union represents some 5,000 frontline workers in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

“Testing at least provides an option and helps to ensure the health of the staff and protect patients,” Placa continued. “We wholeheartedly support the vaccination effort, but continue to be opposed to mandates that take away our ability to protect the rights of our members.”

Staffing crisis

Debbie White, president of HPAE, the state’s largest health care union with some 14,000 members, said increasing vaccination rates is important. But she said Murphy’s order doesn’t solve the current staffing crisis — and could hamper the pandemic response at some sites.

“Testing is a key component and today’s executive order has just eliminated an important tool in slowing the spread of the virus,” White said. “Rather than eliminate testing, our healthcare facilities must conduct more testing on a routine basis of staff, patients and visitors, so we can quickly identify COVID positive individuals and prevent others from becoming infected.”

The number of new COVID-19 cases reported daily has dropped sharply since it peaked in early January with more than 38,000 diagnoses and likely tests in a single day, and the rate of viral spread has eased significantly. Related hospitalizations are also declining although more than 5,000 COVID-19 patients remain in acute care. And deaths — considered a lagging indicator of the disease — have ticked up and down in recent weeks, but New Jersey’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner said that “a critical shortage” of morgue space statewide led it to create two temporary storage sites for bodies.

“While it appears that the omicron tsunami is finally pulling back, we are in no position to say we’re on dry ground,” Murphy said in announcing the new federal testing site, which will operate seven days a week from 7 a.m. until 5 p.m., or until they run out of tests. The FEMA-run site — one of two federal operations — can test 1,000 people a day and results are available in 24 hours, he said.

It is not clear exactly how many people are covered by the mandate Murphy revised or their current vaccination rates, as his office declined to provide more detail. The executive order applies to workers in dozens of state-licensed facilities, including psychiatric and rehabilitation hospitals, veterans’ homes, facilities for developmentally disabled individuals, urgent-care centers, dialysis programs, community clinics, detox and residential addiction programs, group homes and state and county correctional facilities, among others. Full- and part-time employers, contractors and others working on-site are all subject to the mandate.

Two deadlines

New Jersey’s formal COVID-19 vaccine plan indicates there are more than 500,000 health care workers, but the governor’s mandate applies only to those who work in hospitals, long-term care and other health care facilities — not individual doctors or dentists who limit themselves to private practice.

Under the new executive order, Murphy said health care workers would have until Feb. 28 to get vaccinated — meaning two shots of Pfizer or Moderna serums or a single Johnson & Johnson jab. Those who work in congregate-living facilities, including corrections officials, have until March 30 to get this done. Everyone would then need to get boosters as recommended, five months later for Pfizer and Moderna or two months later for Johnson & Johnson. It was not clear which timeline applied to nursing-home and other long-term care workers.

“Again, testing out is no longer an option. The only exemptions will be granted for disability or other medical reasons, or for deeply held religious beliefs,” Murphy said Wednesday. “Anyone found in noncompliance will be subject to their workplace’s disciplinary process, up to and including termination of employment.”

Murphy has also previously mandated vaccinations for some 64,000 workers in state government — at least 70% of whom complied by early December — and for roughly 130,000 teachers and school employees. No booster dose is currently required for these groups and the weekly testing option remains in effect; the federal vaccine mandate, which does not permit testing, only applies to health care workers.

Statewide, more than 6.5 million New Jerseyans age five and up have received their initial vaccination series, or 75% of those eligible for the shots, health commissioner Judy Persichilli said at Wednesday’s event. But only 48% of those eligible for boosters have received the extra dose, she said, and some 4.5 million residents remain more at risk as a result. “We have a long way to go in protecting all of us against COVID,” she said.

Murphy said new data on breakthrough cases — or COVID-19 diagnoses among vaccinated individuals, which have become more common with the highly transmissible omicron variant — indicates that infection and hospitalization rates are three times higher among people who have not been boosted, versus those who received the extra shot. People who have not had any shots face an even greater risk.

“We know the vaccines work. And we know the boosters work even more on top of that,” Murphy said, urging residents to visit one of New Jersey’s 2,000 vaccination sites if they haven’t been immunized.

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published this page in News and Politics 2022-01-20 03:13:17 -0800