N.J. requires vaccine and testing for workers in health care facilities and congregate settings

New Jersey officials are requiring vaccinations for those who work in health care and congregate settings by Sept. 7 or be tested for COVID at least once a week.

Eduardo Delgado gets his COVID-19 vaccination from Gail Bagnato

Eduardo Delgado, 79, gets his COVID-19 vaccination from Gail Bagnato, a student at Rutgers School of Nursing. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

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Workers in health care facilities and high-risk congregate settings in New Jersey must get vaccinated by early September or be subjected to regular testing for COVID-19.

Gov. Phil Murphy announced the vaccine mandate Monday during his weekly COVID briefing. It comes as the delta variant has become the most dominant strain of the coronavirus.

The mandate covers several state entities including psychiatric hospitals, veterans’ homes and correctional facilities. It also covers private entities as well like long-term care and assisted living facilities, county jails, specialty hospitals, in-patient rehab centers and licensed behavioral health facilities.

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Murphy said all impacted facilities must be in full compliance by Sept. 7 with “no exceptions, no extensions.”

“To be clear, this standard is the absolute floor,” he said. “We are reviewing all available resources to set aggressive testing standards as quickly as possible.”

The full details are still being worked out. Those who do not get vaccinated by the deadline must be tested for COVID  1-2 times per a week. The governor says private facilities can implement a “more rigorous mandate” if they choose.

However, the governor warned that the state could go one step further.

“To be clear, we retain the ability and the authority to go further, if we do not see significant increases in vaccination rates within this worker population,” he said. Specifically, the state will make vaccination an employment requirement if increases are not realized.

The mandate would affect “many thousands” of workers, according to state officials.

Overall, the percentage of vaccinated staff in long-term care has risen to 71%. But in some facilities, the percentage is as low as 33%.

Coronavirus outbreaks in those facilities have been on the rise recently, according to state Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli. There are 38 active outbreaks as of Monday, compared to 18 outbreaks a couple of weeks ago. She said the mandates are an important step to reduce the risk of the virus spreading to nursing home residents, hospitalized patients and vulnerable residents overall.

“None of us would want our vulnerable loved ones put in danger due to their caregiver or a health care provider,” she said. “As a nurse, I know our health care providers – given what they experienced over the past 18 months – do not want to expose those they care for to any unnecessary risk.”

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State facilities join RWJ Barnabas and Virtua Health in requiring employees be vaccinated.

Murphy said that people can expect his administration to “broaden out the universe” over time when it comes to mandating vaccination for employees. He said he would give serious consideration in following the lead of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in requiring vaccinations or weekly testing of port authority and New Jersey Transit employees.

State colleges and universities will continue to make their own decision as to whether vaccination is required. Rutgers University was the first state school to require vaccination. Stockton University recently announced that all faculty and staff must be vaccinated by Sept. 1. It long required students to be vaccinated. Though required, students at Rowan University can decline getting vaccinated due to the vaccines being under emergency use authorization by the federal government.

No politics involved

Gov. Murphy said politics are not driving recent decisions in regards to the pandemic.

“I’m not worried about the people who think I’m basing it on politics cause we’re not,” he said. “There’s a lot of noise out there, you can’t pay attention to it.”

The governor, with Commissioner Persichilli, recently put out a “strong” recommendation that masks be worn indoors in crowded settings or when the vaccination status of other people in the room are not known.

Murphy was asked earlier in the briefing whether he was holding off on mask mandates for fear that it would turn off voters as he runs for re-election.

“I can assure you that politics is not part of the equation,” he responded.

The governor reiterated that his decisions are guided by CDC guidance and that recent decisions, including the vaccine mandate for workers in health care and congregate settings are “not popular steps.”

“We’re just going to continue to do what we think is the right thing to do,” he said.

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