NJ will require prison, healthcare workers to get COVID vaccines or undergo weekly tests

The state could strengthen the mandate if enough workers don’t get vaccinated


By Brent Johnson
nj.com
        
TRENTON — New Jersey will require all workers in hospitals, long-term care centers, prisons, and a number of other state and private health-care facilities and high-risk congregate settings to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

Those places have until Sept. 7 to comply with the program. Employees who don’t get inoculated will be tested for the coronavirus at least once or twice a week.

Officials said this is an effort to protect vulnerable residents and curb the spread of the delta variant of the virus that has been driving upticks in statewide cases and hospitalizations.

“The spread of the delta variant and its widespread impacts are no longer something that we can look at casually,” Gov. Murphy said.
“The spread of the delta variant and its widespread impacts are no longer something that we can look at casually,” Gov. Murphy said. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)

The state could strengthen the mandate if enough workers don’t get vaccinated, Murphy said at his latest COVID-19 briefing in Trenton.

“To be clear, this standard is the absolute floor,” the governor said. “If we do not see significant increases in vaccination rates among the employees in these settings, we are ready and willing to require all staff to be vaccinated as a condition of their employment.”

The state settings are:

  • Ancora Psychiatric Hospital
  • Ann Klein Forensic Center
  • Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital
  • Trenton Psychiatric Hospital
  • Paramus Veterans Memorial Home
  • Menlo Park Veterans Memorial Home
  • Vineland Veterans Memorial Home
  • Developmental Centers
  • University Hospital
  • State correctional facilities
  • Juvenile Justice Commission Facilities

The private facilities include but are not limited to:

  • Long-term care and assisted-living facilities
  • County jails
  • Acute-care hospitals and specialty hospitals
  • Short-term and post-acute in-patient rehabs
  • Licensed behavioral health facilities
  • Home health agencies

Murphy said the move will affect “many thousands” of employees, though he did not have an exact number.

This comes four days after President Joe Biden announced Thursday that all federal workers must show they’ve been vaccinated or face weekly testing and other protocols. New York City and California are also requiring government workers to be vaccinated.

New Jersey’s move doesn’t go that far. Asked Monday whether the state will go a step further and mandate all state workers to get vaccinated, Murphy said: “We’re gonna start with the most vulnerable and then we’ll see how that goes.”

He also said there is “nothing stopping any employer” in New Jersey “from implementing at least as rigorous a policy.” Some colleges, health-care facilities, and businesses in the state have already mandated that students or workers get the vaccine.

“The spread of the delta variant and its widespread impacts are no longer something that we can look at casually,” Murphy said. “Almost every day we are receiving some new research note that shows this variant to be even more contagious and more deadly than previously thought. We also know that the surest way to end this pandemic is through vaccination.”

Some unions have said they believe vaccine mandates should be negotiated in collective bargaining.

In the wake of Monday’s announcement, AFSCME New Jersey Council 63 — which represents 6,000 state workers — said they encourage their members to “get vaccinated as soon as possible” and that Murphy’s office agreed Monday morning to “bargain over the impact of mandating the vaccine or weekly testing for the state workers that we represent.”

“We applaud their willingness to negotiate the impact of this policy and we look forward to working together to find a resolution that makes sense for the state as well as AFSCME members,” the union added.

Debbie White, president of HPAE — the state’s largest union of registered nurses and healthcare professionals, with more than 14,000 members — also praised the move.

“This will ensure we are providing the best protection to mitigate the spread of COVID-19,” White said. “As a union, we will continue to discuss the effects of the rollout with employers because we know there are some for whom the vaccine is prohibitive.”

The announcement comes about four months before Murphy, a Democrat seeking a second term, is up for re-election Nov. 2. Public-worker unions are among his biggest supporters.

More than 5.2 million people who live, work, or study in New Jersey have already been fully vaccinated. That gives the state one of the nation’s highest coronavirus vaccination rates, with more than 70% of its eligible population fully inoculated. That, officials and experts say, has helped the state’s COVID-19 numbers remain far below the pandemic’s peaks, with daily deaths continuously in the single digits.

Only 50 people in the state, or 0.001% of those who are fully vaccinated, have died due to COVID-19 as of July 19, officials said Monday, while only 195 people, or 0.0004% of those fully vaccinated were hospitalized.

But the state’s daily cases and hospitalizations have steadily increased over the last month, and about 4 million residents remain unvaccinated.

COVID-19 numbers are growing across the country as the delta variant spreads. Officials say unvaccinated people remain the most at risk. They say vaccinated people can still catch the virus and pass it to others.

New Jersey was one of the nation’s earliest COVID-19 hotspots in spring 2020, with the virus spreading rapidly through long-term care facilities. At least 8,065 of the state’s coronavirus deaths have been among residents and staff members at nursing homes and other long-term care centers, according to state data.

State Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli said Monday that outbreaks in those facilities have “dropped dramatically” since the winter but have been rising again lately. There are currently outbreaks in 38 facilities, compared to 18 two weeks ago, Persichilli said.

She called Monday’s move an “important step to reduce the risk to nursing home residents and vulnerable residents overall.”

In an effort to fight the delta variant, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced last week that it’s recommending all people, including the fully vaccinated, wear masks indoors again in public places with “high” or “substantial” coronavirus transmission rates in the country. All but one New Jersey county currently qualifies as of Monday.  

Murphy responded by issuing a statement last week saying all people in New Jersey are “strongly encouraged” — but not required — to wear masks indoors in settings where there is “increased risk” of catching the virus. The governor, though, has said he’s open to another mandate if numbers got worse.
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