New Jersey’s top health official faced tough questions from state lawmakers Tuesday in a virtual hearing over the administration’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli, testifying before the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee, defended the state’s ongoing coronavirus restrictions, as well as an order issued last spring regarding how long-term care facilities should house sick residents.
The order required these facilities to readmit sick residents as long as they could be separated from healthy residents to prevent infection. Some Republican lawmakers said facilities were confused by the policy or felt pressure to readmit coronavirus-positive residents, but Persichilli noted that many facilities did in fact deny readmission to some sick patients, signaling they understood the state’s guidance.
“How many times do I have to point to this chart,” Persichilli said to lawmakers, “that shows you every single day the number of facilities who apparently understood — they understood — the directive?”
According to state data, 7,878 long-term care residents and 144 staff members have died from coronavirus complications since the start of the outbreak.
Lawmakers also asked Persichilli why the state wasn’t reopening more quickly, given that some of the more dire projections of COVID-19 infections haven’t come true and more than 3.5 million people are now fully vaccinated.
Gov. Phil Murphy previously announced that on May 19 the state would eliminate outdoor gathering caps and drop capacity limits for indoor businesses, though staff and patrons would still be required to wear masks and physically distance, and an indoor gathering limit of 50 would remain in place.
“What are we waiting for to drop all of this — the rules, the regulations, the restrictions?” said Sen. Declan O’Scanlon, R-Monmouth. “Isn’t it time to end it all and tell people, if you feel you’re vulnerable or chose not to get vaccinated, maybe you should wear a mask and social distance?”
Persichilli said it would be easier to reopen more quickly if not for the coronavirus variants currently circulating in the Garden State, including the B.1.1.7 strain first detected in the United Kingdom, which is more contagious but not necessarily deadlier than previous strains. Persichilli said viruses mutate and it’s important to remain vigilant.
“If it were not for the variants then the answer would be a lot different,” she said. “I’m vaccinated. I wear a mask everywhere, because I know vaccination is not 100%.”
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