N.J. coronavirus recovery: Fired health commissioner files whistleblower suit

Medical staff prepare to start working at a drive-through testing center for COVID-19 in Paramus, N.J., on Friday, March 20, 2020. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Medical staff prepare to start working at a drive-through testing center for COVID-19 in Paramus, N.J., on Friday, March 20, 2020. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

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New Jersey reported Tuesday 470 new confirmed COVID-19 cases; bringing the total to 167,426. There were 51 new deaths reported from the virus raising the toll to 12,727.

Thirty-three people were admitted to hospitals across the state, raising the total number of hospitalizations to 1,291 according to the state hospital association; 362 patients are in intensive care.

Former assistant health commissioner blows whistle on Murphy officials

A former assistant health commissioner has filed a whistle-blower lawsuit against the state alleging he was fired for resisting calls to test family members of a Murphy administration official for COVID-19.

Christopher Neuwirth was part of the state’s COVID pandemic response as leader of the division of public health infrastructure, laboratories and emergency preparedness from 2018 until this past May.

In a lawsuit filed with Superior Court in Mercer County he asserts he was fired after lodging an ethics complaint against Gov. Phil Murphy’s chief of staff George Helmy and State Police Superintendent Col. Patrick Callahan.

The suit alleges that Callahan called Neuwirth in April asking him or a member of his staff to go to the home of one of Helmy’s relatives and test two relatives for COVID-19. As Neuwirth was on his way to conduct the test, he was instructed not to perform it by Heath Commissioner Judith Persichilli.

After Neuwirth sought to file an ethics complaint, the suit further alleges he was threatened with criminal action, left out of communications with senior staff in the health department and accused of leaking information to the media; an allegation he denied. The suit then says he was notified by human resources that “his services were no longer needed” and was terminated with no cause.

In a news release from the law office of Smith Eibeler which is representing him, Neuwirth said it was “incomprehensible” that he was retaliated against for following what he was taught in the state’s annual ethics training.

“It’s hard for me to understand why my closest, trusted colleagues within DOH leadership, including the Commissioner and Chief of Staff, would treat me in such a callous and malicious manner — without ever once speaking to me about their concerns,” Neuwirth added.

Murphy declined to comment on the suit.

Deep dive into recommendations for long-term care facilities

A joint meeting of two Assembly committees discussed the report that offered recommendations into improving the state’s long-term care facilities.

The report, prepared by Manatt Health, was based on a three-week review of facilities that included interviews with more than 100 people.

Recommendations included the creation of a centralized operations center to manage the reopening of facilities and respond to possible surges in COVID cases and stabilizing the long-term care workforce.

Cindy Mann, a partner at Manatt Health who testified before the joint committee, said that direct care staff are the backbone of nursing home care. She noted that more than 90 percent of direct care employees are women, 84 percent are minorities and half are immigrants; adding they “earn quite little” and go to different facilities to piece together a living wage putting their own health and that of their families at risk.

“The [certified nursing assistants] earn an average of $15 an hour; many work multiple jobs,” Mann said. “They work multiple jobs because they need to feed their family and pay their rent.”

Mann said the pandemic exposed weaknesses in the long-term care system in New Jersey and much of the country. The weakness was exacerbated when 70 people died at a North Jersey nursing home. The New York Times reported Andover Subacute and Rehabilitation Center II was chronically short of staff and masks and regularly received poor marks from state and federal inspectors.

A representative from Andover was expected to offer testimony during the virtual hearing but was not available when called upon.

The Manatt report was released earlier in June by Murphy.

Guidelines for personal care reopening issued

The state-issued health and safety standards for personal care services Tuesday ahead of their reopening on June 22.

The guidelines from the Division of Consumer Affairs cover services such as massage parlors, barbershops along with nail and hair salons.

Businesses will be required to screen clients and staff before entering, use personal protective equipment and adopt enhanced cleaning and disinfection practices. No walk-ins will be permitted; appointments — which will be staggered to allow for cleaning in between clients — will be required for all services.

Items like magazines and toys must be removed and spaces configured to ensure social distancing.

The guidelines from the division were developed in consultation with the state health department and the boards regulating massage, bodywork therapy, cosmetology and hairstyling.

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