Murphy’s extended pandemic powers will cover far more than masks

LILO H. STAINTON, HEALTH CARE WRITER | JANUARY 6, 2022

NJ Spotlight News

Nov. 28, 2021: Gov. Phil Murphy received COVID-19 booster shot at Monmouth Medical Center.

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When Gov. Phil Murphy announced plans Monday to extend certain pandemic-related state orders to help guard against the latest COVID-19 spike, the public conversation focused largely on how it would mean three months more of face-masking at schools and child-care centers.

But the extension request — which the New Jersey Legislature is expected to approve Monday — would apply to far more than just those controversial mask mandates.

Murphy is asking lawmakers to grant 90-day extensions for nearly 120 government actions, including executive orders from his office and administrative orders, directives and waivers from roughly a dozen state agencies. Senate President Steve Sweeney, who leads the Democratic majority, said the request is under review and Republican leaders have urged caution, fearing a return to the lockdowns that accompanied the early pandemic.

Among those Murphy wants to extend include Health Department orders related to coronavirus testing and vaccinations, licensing directives from various agencies designed to bolster the health care workforce and actions from the Department of Banking and Insurance that seek to prevent copays and other costs from blocking patients from accessing COVID testing and care. The request would also allow municipal boards to continue to meet remotely, rather than in person, and allow certain professional licensing requirements, like real-estate classes, to be conducted online.

“This omicron tsunami has changed the game yet again,” Murphy said Monday at his weekly pandemic media briefing. “We cannot summarily give up the fight. We need to remain on a war footing to ensure that we can get resources to where they need to be and when they need to be there.  And yes, this means that we anticipate our kids having to wear masks in their schools for now in order to protect their health and safety and ensure that they can continue in-person learning,” he said, noting the continued masking mandate brought him “absolutely no joy.”

New Jersey saw reports of new COVID-19 diagnoses jump some 260% in the days following Christmas and hospitalizations have increased more than 75% in seven days, state data shows. Case numbers are also on the rise at schools and a growing number of educators and child-care workers are out sick after being infected. While the highly transmissible omicron variant driving the surge is generally considered less dangerous, state models predict hospitalizations could peak next week with as many as 9,000 patients in acute care — more than the previous record.

But not all New Jersey’s pandemic-related government orders would be extended. Murphy’s request notes more than 100 other regulatory directives would lapse automatically Monday, including an executive order requiring hospitals, nursing homes and other health care facilities to report to the state how many protective gowns, masks and gloves they had on hand. Also set to expire is an executive order that limits capacity at outdoor events and in restaurants, bars and other venues. Most of them involve waivers issued by various departments to ease certain licensing and program requirements. Murphy is not asking the Legislature to extend them.

On Jan. 1 Murphy’s chief counsel Parimal Garg sent legislative leaders a requestion extension, an option that was outlined in a law Murphy signed in June that formally ended the health care emergency while preserving some of the governor’s additional pandemic-related powers. Additional mandates were phased out over the months that followed, but the law allowed the governor or department heads to extend individual directives beyond Jan. 11, if there was a public health need.

As mandates eased in the spring, businesses in New Jersey were able to reopen with fewer restrictions and continued to operate in the fall and winter, as cases began to rise again. But Murphy’s decision in August to require all children and adults to mask-up in schools and child-care facilities drew outrage from some members of the public, including many Republican lawmakers, who accused him of “muzzling” kids and curbing their freedom.

With COVID-19 cases ticking up in early November — but before New Jersey saw further spikes related to holiday gatherings or omicron — Murphy suggested the school-mask mandate could actually be phased out before January, if more children received vaccines. Federal officials had permitted Pfizer shots to be given to kids ages 5 to 11 a week earlier and uptake was not what state officials had hoped.

“I would hope this is the beginning of a process — I can’t tell you exactly when — but that we will be able to get to that place (of not requiring masks in schools) sooner than later,” Murphy said time.  Asked by a reporter if he was forcing parents’ hands with the announcement, he said, “I don’t view that as strong-arming. I view that as factual.”

Two weeks later, omicron was on the state’s doorstep and public health officials were forced to confront an even more transmissible variant. Murphy has not imposed any additional mandates, but the state has continued to push vaccines and boosters and has recently expanded its testing infrastructure, in addition to requesting an extension for certain orders.

If granted by lawmakers, the extension would allow the following to continue, among other things:

  • requiring health care facilities to separate COVID-positive patients from those not infected;
  • conducting certain child-welfare visits by video or phone, not just in person;
  • providing opioid treatments at alternative sites, not just at a licensed facility;
  • ensuring immediate access to telehealth for a wide range of issues, without an initial in-person visit first;
  • requiring hospitals to assess their own supply of personal protective gear;
  • permitting pharmacy technicians, medical assistants and other licensed professionals to administer COVID-19 vaccines.
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published this page in News and Politics 2022-01-06 03:24:35 -0800