NJ gets new COVID-19 emergency

LILO H. STAINTON, HEALTH CARE WRITER | JANUARY 12, 2022 

NJ Spotlight News

Gov. Phil Murphy prepares to deliver his 2022 State of the State address.

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Gov. Phil Murphy reinstated New Jersey’s public health emergency Tuesday, empowering state officials to continue the current COVID-19 vaccination and testing programs, permit hospitals ongoing flexibility to address staffing challenges and require everyone to still wear masks in schools and child care facilities.

Murphy called the public health emergency a “necessary step” given the recent growth in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, a message he shared with the broader public in his prerecorded State of the State address which was broadcast at 5 p.m. Tuesday.

The new action does not require universal vaccine mandates or passports, institute new lockdowns or impose additional restrictions on businesses or gatherings, Murphy said in a video message accompanying the announcement to the media Tuesday afternoon.

“It does not mean going backward from any of the progress we’ve made together over the past 22 months. In fact, in your day-to-day life, this step won’t have any new impact at all,” Murphy said in the video announcing the public health emergency. “What it does mean is that we can continue moving forward with our coordinated and responsible approach to putting omicron and COVID behind us.”

While Murphy largely blamed the highly transmissible omicron variant of the coronavirus for forcing his hand in declaring the public health emergency, the executive order he signed reinstating it would not have been necessary if the New Jersey Legislature had acted on his request to extend certain pandemic powers. But lawmakers, led by fellow Democrats, declined to hold a vote Tuesday on bills that would have extended some 120 administrative orders, declarations and waivers related to the pandemic.

Murphy explains

In his fourth annual State of the State — a 35-minute address preceded by a 4-minute campaign-style video of administrative accomplishments — Murphy said his decision to reinstate the public health emergency, which he first declared at the start of the pandemic in March 2020, was made “in consultation with my partners in the Legislature.” But his staff declined to elaborate on any discussions. Tuesday’s speech was the first of several major policy addresses Murphy is set to deliver in the next six weeks, and the first State of the State Murphy delivered since narrowly winning reelection in November to a second four-year term.

New Senate President Nick Scutari (D-Union) and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex) appeared to welcome the governor’s action in a joint statement released during the State of the State. “As the pandemic continues to result in record-high cases and hospitalization levels, we hope to work together to do all we can to fight the spread of COVID-19. We will consider every option available to protect our communities and support our first responders, frontline workers, and public services.”

Republican lawmakers, however, insisted Murphy’s emergency declaration was a step backward for New Jersey and said the governor is circumventing the Legislature in his actions. “We need to give people hope that life is returning to normal, not returning to one man’s rule by executive order,” Sen. Anthony Bucco (R-Morris) said in a statement.

In his State of the State, Murphy championed the resiliency of New Jersey and the state’s residents, especially given the pandemic, and praised those who have “done the right thing” by masking up, staying home and postponing family gatherings to help control the spread of the disease.

Nearly 2 million New Jerseyans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, more than 100,000 hospitalized as a result and nearly 30,000 have died in the past 22 months. In recent weeks case numbers have spiked to record levels and hospitalizations have quadrupled, according to state data.

NJ still ‘on a war footing’ against virus

“Hard work, even in the face of great challenge, does not deter us as New Jerseyans. Hard work, especially in the face of great challenge, defines us,” Murphy said in the speech, recorded earlier this week in an empty theater.

That great challenge continues, given the omicron variant, Murphy said, acknowledging the toll the pandemic is taking on residents. “Our state remains on a war footing against a virus that has now taken on a form that is overwhelming our collective psyche as it tests our state,” he said. “We’re all frustrated by this pandemic. We’re all tired of it getting in the way of everything we do. We’re all ready to get on with our lives. And I am committed to seeing us get there.”

Vaccinations are a critical part of moving forward, Murphy said, urging those who have not been immunized or boosted to get the shots. While nine out of 10 eligible New Jerseyans have received at least one shot, and three-quarters have had their initial course, less than half have also had a booster, which studies show is critical in protecting against new variants.

“Every vaccine dose is a ray of light through the dark cloud that has hung over our families,” Murphy said, encouraging people to follow the science, not rumors. “Every dose gets us one step closer to regaining the life we knew prior to COVID.”

As contrast, Murphy painted a hopeful picture of the state’s economic and population growth, rising investment in schools and high quality of life, although the speech itself provided limited details. He highlighted his decision to fully fund the state’s pension system this year, the first time in a quarter-century, and efforts to spark job growth, including the creation of a new public-private partnership in the Innovation Evergreen Fund, a program designed to support technology startups.

Property taxes

Murphy said his administration has made unprecedented progress in controlling property taxes — New Jersey has among the nation’s highest, with average bills more than $9,000 annually — thanks to rebate programs and direct community investments to offset local costs. The governor also championed his commitment to tax “fairness” and claimed to have implemented more than a dozen tax cuts since he took office in 2018, but his office declined to provide a list Tuesday.

“The reality is this — we’re making New Jersey the place where businesses want to locate and families want to live,” Murphy said, countering a popular Republican narrative that New Jersey’s high costs are driving people away. “The census counts it in black-and-white — while some states in our region lost population, New Jersey grew.”

But Tom Bracken, president and CEO of the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce, said more action was needed to enable small businesses to continue to contribute to the state’s economy. “The governor said small business is the backbone of New Jersey’s economy. That backbone needs more help now as it deals with a pandemic going on two years old,” Bracken said.

In the speech, Murphy also touched on steps to reform criminal justice, address the opioid epidemic and make higher education more accessible. He highlighted his success in raising the minimum wage — now $13 an hour — and investments in NJ TRANSIT. He promised to quickly sign legislation to guarantee abortion rights, as these could be eliminated by the U.S. Supreme Court, although the bill he had championed was watered down by lawmakers.

Much work remains, Murphy said, and he pledged to do more to reduce gun violence and lower health care costs. He championed the state’s efforts to make health insurance more accessible and affordable, highlighting a new partnership program designed to control medical costs. He also promised to do more to make prescription drugs more affordable, with a plan he would send to state lawmakers.

“Containing and lowering health care and prescription drug costs isn’t just good for your family’s health and bottom line, it’s also good for our state’s,” Murphy said of the prescription drug initiative in his speech. His staff declined to provide other details.

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published this page in News and Politics 2022-01-12 03:27:01 -0800