This week, North-JerseyNews.com takes a deeper look into what we consider the two most pressing issues to residents as they attempt to decide who to vote for as Governor: Taxes and COVID-19. Our second story is how the cortanvirus pandemic has been and will be handled.
For better and worse, the coronavirus pandemic has been the defining issue for Gov. Phil Murphy during his first term in office.
Since the first case was discovered March 4, 2020 while the governor was recovering from cancer surgery, the actions of the Murphy Administration have attempted to straddle the line to keeping as many people healthy while trying to boost an economy that was shut down in the first few months.
While a majority of New Jerseyans have continually been supportive of the way he has handled the pandemic, not all of the actions have been welcomed. The three issues that have been major flashpoints were Murphy’s decision to return long-term care patients to their facilities while still having the virus, how schools operated during the time period and COVID-19 mandates.
Long-term Care Facilities
The deaths at long-term care facilities, currently accounting for over a third of the nearly 25,000 confirmed deaths during pandemic, has been blamed on an edict from the New Jersey Department of Health to return those patients from hospitals that were being overrun with cases in the first weeks of the pandemic.
Murphy has repeatedly defended his actions, stating the guidance specifically directed operators at nursing homes to isolate the patients at these facilities that were their homes. The issue has resulted in state and federal authorities to open separate investigations into whether there were “systemic violations” at the state-run veterans homes, including in Paramus, which have had some of the highest coronavirus death rates in the nation.
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Calls for Investigations
Investigators have recently interviewed staff, patients and families but have not commented on what they have found due to it being an ongoing investigation.
Murphy has promised that an independent look on nursing and veterans’ homes will be part of an after action report of the pandemic. But he has yet to set a firm date or outline of what the review will look like.
“We will do (an investigation), there’s no question about it,” Murphy said during the second debate. “The challenge is, we’re still in the middle of the pandemic. It’s better than it was, but it’s not as good as it was on Memorial Day… There will be a full accounting, independent of my office, of this.”
Closing of Schools
Another decision made in March 2020 was moving to remote learning that lasted for the rest of the 2019/2020 school year that caused the cancellation of events like Senior Proms as well as graduation ceremonies that were held virtually or delayed to allow for a limited number of participants and family members. For 2020/2021, most schools operated under a hybrid model as the state worried about transmission of the virus inside schools.
Among the mandates school had to adhere to included masking for all on school campuses, grab-and-go lunches, a remote leaning option that families could choose and social distancing in classes and hallways. Sports were allowed, but with shortened seasons and with only families allowed to attend games indoors starting in February when the season was halfway over.
As the 2021/22 school year approached, Murphy pushed for in-person classes with no option for families to opt for remote learning. The first-term governor pushed for this with a playbook that relies on masking and vaccine mandates.
School Mask Mandate
The mask mandate remained in effect for this school year with Murphy citing a vaccine not yet available for those 11 and younger. Later, the state put in place a vaccine mandate for all teachers by Oct. 18 or face testing twice a week.
For Murphy, he views the vaccine as the key to getting back to normal. He has clashed with anti-vaxxers and those against wearing of masks, arguing that it is the best way to contain the spread of the virus.
“We know vaccines work; we know masking works,” Murphy said in the second debate last week. “To ignore that, disregard that playbook, is putting lives needlessly at risk. It feels like an answer you’d see in…Texas or Florida.”
Murphy has touted the state’s vaccination rate as being one of the best in the nation. Since the first vaccine dose was delivered on Dec. 15, 2020, nearly six million eligible New Jerseyans are fully vaccinated.
But the rollout of the vaccine was not smooth in the beginning, with demand outweighing supply and problems getting an appointment website up and running. Health officials have worked to address inequities when it came to communities of color who were hesitant to receive the shot due to past history with government health vaccines as well as convenience to where to receive the shot.
But it was the decision, starting in the last Summer, to mandate the COVID-19 vaccine or face testing requirements that has been a major point of contention between Murophy and Ciattarelli.
The first vaccine mandate was for all workers in New Jersey hospitals, long-term care centers, prisons, and a number of other state and private healthcare facilities and high-risk congregate settings to be fully vaccinated or face repeated testing. That went into effect Sept. 7.
The second was by Oct. 18 for school staffers and state workers. The school requirement applies to all preschool through 12th grade employees at public, private, and parochial schools, including charter and renaissance schools. The state worker requirement is for all state employees, including those at state agencies, authorities, and public colleges and universities.
The fourth will go into effect Nov. 1 for childcare workers. The governor signed an executive order Sept. 20 that requires all childcare workers and facility employees in childcare settings to be fully vaccinated by Nov. 1. As with the other mandates, all those declining to get the COVID-19 vaccine are required to be tested at least once a week.
Despite a federal lawsuit that was filed by a group of teachers and state workers saying the vaccine or testing program was a violation of privacy rights protected by the Fourteenth Amendment, Murphy continued to express confidence the plan in place was the best path forward.
“A vaccine mandate with a testing option (along with masking), I think is reasonable,” said Murphy. “Some people sadly look at that as unreasonable, but I suspect we are not going to have a lot of them.”
Ciattarelli, who is fully vaccinated, has taken the position of medical freedom of choice when it comes to the vaccine and wearing of masks.
“I encourage people to get vaccinated. I believe that my role as governor when elected is to provide all the information people need to make an informed decision,” said Ciattarelli during the debates. “And then the choice is theirs. Do I believe that the government has a right to tell people they have to take medicine? No, I don’t.”
He has sought to distance himself from Republican governors, such as those like Gov. Ron DeSantis in Florida, that has not been as strigents as New Jersey has.
“I never hear [DeSantis] warning people about how deadly this virus is. I think it’s careless to just say, ‘Go about your lives.’ I’ve never said that,” Ciattarelli said in an interview this month with the USA TODAY Network New Jersey Editorial Board. “I’m not where Phil Murphy is, but I’m certainly not where Ron DeSantis is.”
On mask mandates, Ciattarelli cites conflicting reports about the value and potential harm of mask mandates for children. It is the same arguments that have been made at schools boards across New Jersey this Summer by anti-vaxxers.
“For every column that says that it’s a public health imperative for a child to wear a mask, I’ve seen another column by another clinician who says mask wearing ‘inhibits learning’,” Ciattarelli recently stated.
But Ciattarelli’s reasoning stands in sharp contrast to two recent studies from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which recommends universal mask wearing for school students and faculty.
One CDC study, comparing two large counties in Arizona, found the likelihood of a COVID-19 outbreak to be 3.5 times higher in districts that didn’t require masks. A second study found much higher rates of pediatric COVID-19 in U.S. counties that lacked mask requirements than in those that did.
The GOP nominee has argued that Murphy’s approach has wound up dividing residents.
“There’s very strong disagreement and polarization over this issue that’s tearing our communities apart,” said Ciattarelli. “You see it at local board of education meetings. And so to me what you try to do is put forth a policy that works for almost everyone, realizing you’re not gonna be able to please everyone.”
When reminded governments have mandated vaccines for measles, rubella, polio and other childhood diseases for generations, Ciattarelli again used the same language of anti-vaxxers that those vaccines have a proven track record of safety, while unsubstantiated concerns about the new COVID vaccines linger.
In the waning days of the campaign, the GOP nominee has gone hard after Murphy on his leadership during the pandemic. Ciattarelli holds him personally responsible for the deaths at the long-term facilities and not letting small businesses open quicker as compared to big box stores.
More recently, he has concentrated his attacks on playing gotcha when it comes to Murphy not wearing a mask indoors in crowded venues.
Republicans have attempted to make hay with recent reports showing Murphy maskless at Garden State Equality event in Asbury Park and a Monmouth County Democrat function the past two weeks. Monmouth County has high levels of viral transmission and masking is highly recommended in such settings by the CDC.
“He participated in a very large indoor conference … in which nobody was wearing masks. I do think our leadership needs to be consistent in times such as these,” Ciattarelli said during the second debate.
Being Indoor Maskless
Murphy retorted that he was not wearing a mask because he was speaking on stage. “Are you wearing a mask right now? We’re on stage…I take [the mask off] off, speak, and put it on when I leave.”
Murphy has defended himself by saying the Asbury Park event required everyone to be vaccinated to attend and has maintained his own advice by masking up when he is at events when he does not know the vaccination status of those in attendance.
In the end, the Governor believes it’s just Republicans reaching for an angle of attack.
“Folks are reaching for straws here,” Murphy said.