The fundamental argument over the handling of the coronavirus pandemic the last two years can be boiled down to this question: How far can the government use its powers to attempt to ensure the health of its citizenry?
There are extremists on both sides of the issue: those who believe personal freedom overrides any attempts to curtail a deadly disease battling with those who disregard economic and educational issues caused by policies enacted by state and local governments.
Both are wrong.
We have seen this week how difficult it can be to find the balance. Gov. Phil Murphy, rightly in our view, reenacted his public emergency health powers after state lawmakers had planned to curtail actions that were proven to work in the middle of the latest and largest surge in New Jersey.
Murphy’s actions are seen as an overreach on the right while criticized from some camps that called for all schools to shift to remote learning.
At the same time, the U.S. Supreme Court made a split decision on actions the Biden Administration in its attempts to lessen the amount of cases nationwide. The court blocked the federal government from enforcing a vaccine-or-testing mandate for large employers, but allowed a more limited mandate requiring healthcare workers at facilities receiving federal money to be vaccinated.
The ruling now leaves the country with a patchwork of state laws and policies, largely leaving companies and businesses on their own—and being on the frontlines of abuse from both sides.
The Supreme Court ruling brings us to the biggest flashpoint in New Jersey since the first case was reported March 5, 2020: Andover Subacute and Rehabilitation II, now known as Woodland Behavioral and Nursing Center. It is in the news again as the facility is reporting the worst COVID-19 outbreak among all 670 long-term facilities in the state.
We have agreed with state Republicans that the Murphy’s Administration’s actions at the beginning of the pandemic do require COVID patients to return to their long-term care facilities is worthy of subpoena power investigation.
But the other part we feel as equally strongly about that seemingly gets less attention—the role of the operators of said facilities. For example: Nearly three years into the pandemic, how can it be that only 52.4% of residents—and zero staff—have received booster shots at Andover/Woodland? The operator has the lowest vaccination rate among residents and staff among the long-term care facilities in Sussex County with 85% of residents and just 65% of staff fully vaccinated.
Staffing concerns were to the point where the National Guard had to be called in again to help the facility.
The owners of Andover/Woodland have one of the most important jobs in our society—taking care of our most vulnerable. They have failed to do this at two key moments to protect our fellow New Jerseyans.
We believe that during a pandemic—that we are still in the midst of—mandates a larger government role when it comes to oversight of the private sector. While a shutdown would do more harm and move residents away from their families, the sordid history Andover/Woodland leads us to call for either a federal or state takeover to ensure residents are being taken care of properly.
If a private entity has shown it is incapable of providing a facility where residents can be attend to in a safe manner, it is up to our elected lawmakers to ensure they are. Before another makeshift morgue with stacks of bodies is found on the grounds again, state and federal health officials should step in to guarantee the health of our most vulnerable.