READINGTON, New Jersey – March 4th was on the New Jersey Gov. calendar for weeks. Circled Phil Murphy. It was a day of surgery to remove a cancer tumor that had developed on one of his kidneys. The plans were set: Murphy, a Democrat, should have surgery, then relax at home for a few weeks and build strength. Lt. Governor Sheila Oliver would step in as acting governor and temporarily take over the day-to-day duties of the Garden State’s top office.
The operation went as planned, but the vacation never took place. On March 4, when Murphy recovered from his surgery, the first positive case of the coronavirus was confirmed in New Jersey. The doctors had calmed down, but Murphy continued to work and held his first personal press conference on COVID-1
COVID-19 cases and deaths increased rapidly in the state over the next two months. In April, New Jersey reported more than 3,000 new coronavirus cases almost daily. The hospitals were approaching capacity. 17 bodies were found in the mortuary of a nursing home. Other age groups reported increasing victim lists. The state economy practically came to a standstill and the unemployment rate rose to 15.3 percent. To date, more than 13,000 people have died from the aftermath of COVID-19 in New Jersey, the second highest death toll in the country after only New York.
Murphy led the team, which worked hand in hand with the State Department of Health and other public health experts to combat the rapid spread of the virus, and held over 80 press conferences.
His early ratings were not generally positive. In April and May, hundreds across the state participated in “ReOpen NJ” protests, furious with the governor for his prolonged closure of unnecessary retail stores. Crowds made it clear that they were desperately looking for paychecks; In the meantime, Murphy went on cable news talk shows. Tell CNN on May 25, protests did not affect his decision-making.
Like many COVID-19-related protests across the country, New Jersey collapsed on a party-political scale. Some business owners opposed the governor’s instructions. The owners opened the Atilis Gym in Bellmawr and let customers in in mid-May. The health department closed it shortly after her appearance on Fox News. (Murphy hasn’t fully reopened the gyms.)
But as terrible New Jersey looked in the spring as the death toll and anger at gyms, hair salons, and restaurants increased, Murphy’s efforts at the beginning of July are viewed through a new lens. The state looks like it is offering a model to wrestle with the virus and bring it under control. Two weeks have passed without a day seeing more than 600 new cases. More than half of the country now has a record number of positive cases and hospital stays.
Murphy’s advisors praised the early implementation of an order to stay at home on March 21 as the key to flattening the curve of new COVID-19 cases. The state imposed strict requirements that are directly behind similar orders issued in California and Illinois. (The State Department of Health declined to provide officials for comments.)
Murphy’s order closed all non-essential retail stores and places of worship and canceled all planned gatherings such as weddings, personal services, and parties.
“From day one, we have been committed to following the facts and taking all necessary measures to protect the health and safety of New Jersey’s 9 million residents,” said Murphy when he announced the order. “We know that the virus spreads through personal contact. The best way to prevent further exposure is to limit our public interactions to only the most important purposes.”
The governor consulted experts from across the state and on both sides of the political spectrum on how to deal with the crisis and best practices for reopening the economy. Dr. Scott Gottlieb, formerly Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration in the Trump administration; Andy Slavitt, Health Advisor to President Barack Obama; and Ben Bernanke, former Federal Reserve Chairman, were among those who provided knowledge and advice.
But Murphy admitted in an interview that the state’s response was not without its flaws.
“Was it perfect? No. No one was perfect,” said Murphy. “But we tried our best not to let ourselves be influenced by the enormous emotions that swirled around us.”
Murphy pointed to one of the state’s worst scores: long-term care facilities where, according to the state, more than 6,000 residents and employees died in 557 locations with COVID-19 cases. In late spring, Murphy ordered an outside company, Manatt Health, to investigate what had gone wrong in the facilities. The company conducted remote interviews across the state.
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Those at the forefront of long-term care facilities find Murphy’s comments that “nobody was perfect” an understatement. “The instructions we received from the governor and the Department of Health changed almost daily,” said a long-term care worker in Hunterdon County on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.
It is difficult to keep an overview between the constantly changing regulations for personal protective equipment and the recommendations for isolating patients.
In addition, if the coronavirus began to penetrate the employee’s long-term care facility, some employees would no longer appear for work, the employee said – not because they were sick, but because they had quit and found the risk for them and their families too large. This further disadvantaged long-term care facilities across the state when COVID-19 hit a single facility hard. “In the beginning we had so much death that you couldn’t keep up,” said the employee.
In the first week of June, Manatt Health published recommendations for responses and laws. Murphy said he plans to work on being adopted and enacted in the law, including provisions to implement previously non-existent contingency plans and address short-term staff shortages.
Murphy said that during the crisis he tried to put aside partisans and not politicize science.
“Some have allowed facewear to be political,” he said. “We avoid it like the plague.”
Murphy and his team, based on the recommendations of the state Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, mandated that face coverings be allowed to be worn in all of the state’s public interiors, and they recommended that they be worn outdoors, too .
Murphy also had a very public relationship with President Donald Trump and the White House throughout the pandemic. Along with weekly calls attended by him and the rest of the nation’s governors, Murphy traveled to Washington for an Oval Office meeting in April and dined with the President on Trump’s private golf course in Bedminster on June 12. Trump tweeted that night that they talked about “many things, including opening the beautiful Garden State to get people back to work …”
“With all the political differences that we have – and there are many – I would say they have been parked at the door for our honor and for the credit of the President and his team,” said Murphy. “We focused on the things that were business critical.”
The “business-critical” topics include personal protective equipment, ventilators and test functions, which Murphy found “flat” according to the country.
New Jersey bought 500 ventilators to prepare for an increase in late April when the country’s second most common COVID-19 cases and deaths occurred.
Henry Raymond, deputy director of public health at Rutgers University’s new COVID-19 response and pandemic preparedness center, gave an assessment of what the rest of the country can learn from New Jersey.
“In the absence of a vaccine, we only have masks, social distancing, and contact tracking,” he said. “I think it will be normal for people to wear masks. I think it will be normal for people to remain socially distant. It will be normal for us to minimize venue capacity. I think until we have a proven type of venue vaccine situation , that will be the new normal. “
Raymond referred to a so-called Contact Tracing Task Force, which New Jersey invested a lot of time and money in setting up. It is an ambitious effort to scan and track coronavirus clusters to alert those who may have come into contact with someone who later tested positive for COVID-19. The tracers, called Community Contact Tracing Corps, are trained by experts from the Rutgers’ School of Public Health and paid for by the state.
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While Murphy and others hope this is a way to stop the virus from spreading, it’s unclear how effective the company could be, especially when companies open up and people spend more time outdoors and in public this summer.
In both cases, it was difficult for small business owners to adapt to the so-called new normal, even if the state slowly allows them to open up.
“It’s been three months of hell,” said Jackie Ewing, owner of Armadillo Ltd., a tourist-oriented gift shop in the coastal town of Avalon. “Saying it’s stressful is kind of an understatement. Where am I going, will I have a business? It’s a question that many of us are facing.”
Mask straps and social distancing are difficult to find on the Jersey coast, which accounts for about half of the state’s annual revenue. Viral videos officials were surprised by packed outdoor bars.
“To see … the promenades and the large crowds that are not socially distant and have no face covering give us cause for great concern,” Colonel Patrick Callahan, superintendent of the New Jersey State Police, told reporters.
As New Jersey continues to open, other states are starting to close for the second time. Murphy issued travel warnings with New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont on June 24 and again on June 29, warning visitors from 16 high-coronavirus states that they were quarantined for 14 days arrival in the three-state area.
Although the signs of reduced circulation are good news for the New Jerseyers, officials are aware that there is no time to declare victory. “People ask me all the time, are you ready to pause? Are you ready to come back? I mean, I hope we don’t, but if we have to, we will and we reserve the right to do that . ” Murphy said.
Murphy said he was “particularly cautious” about taking personal precautions against COVID-19 because of his March trial. And he has already modulated the slow reopening of the state and decided this week to end plans to resume eating indoors.
“There’s no need to be an ankle,” Murphy said at a briefing last week. “Keep your distance. Wear your masks. Be smart and polite – the world just isn’t about you.”