Scathing letter from health department insiders says N.J.’s pandemic failures led to ‘preventable deaths’
Updated Jun 02, 2020; Posted Jun 01, 2020
By Susan K. Livio | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com and Ted Sherman | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
New Jersey’s response to the coronavirus inside nursing homes was “an unmitigated failure” that led to “preventable deaths,” a group of anonymous state health department employees charged in a letter to lawmakers Monday. Moreover, Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration “is making things up as they proceed” in order to reopen the economy, the writers also allege.
The letter, sent to state Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, and Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr., R-Union and obtained by NJ Advance Media, also calls for the resignation of state Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli and an investigation into other top administration officials who they said have mishandled the state’s response.
Murphy spokesman Mahen Gunaratna declined to comment, adding, “We’re not going to dignify anonymous allegations with a response.”
NJ Advance Media knows the identity of three of the employees, who asked not to be named because of fears of retaliation. They say other staffers joined them, but they would not disclose who they are, but they have been involved in internal discussions within the health department.
The letter lays out a searing indictment of the state’s handling of the public health crisis, from its lack of transparency on how decisions are being made in reopening the economy, to the failure to devote enough testing and personal protective equipment to protect the most vulnerable — the elderly in long-term care facilities.
It claimed Murphy’s administration hired consultants to complete tasks the state Health Department could not handle because of a lack of leadership.
The writers allege that since there was not enough personal protective equipment staffers were pressured to relax minimum standards to allow testing to proceed in nursing homes, psychiatric hospitals, centers for the developmentally disabled, and prisons.
This combination of a lack of action and “a willful desire to focus only on where most media attention was afforded, such as public testing and hospitals” led to unnecessary deaths, the writers allege.
“In other words, we believe the leadership failures of Commissioner Persichilli led to preventable deaths,” the letter said.
The group also questioned whether the administration in an effort to reopen the economy was “making things up as they proceed, or making decisions and justifying them on the back end. That is both dangerous and the worst type of cynical politics — right smack in the middle of the worst pandemic in modern history.”
Sweeney and Kean, the recipients of the letter, are Murphy’s political adversaries. In the coming weeks, a committee will examine how the administration responded to a swath of problems that affected different communities across New Jersey, including deaths at the state’s long-term care facilities and prisons, the breakdown of the aging unemployment system, the disproportionate impact on minorities.
The authors said they are not “political animals by any stretch of the imagination,” and tend to lean Democratic. They say they felt the need to come forward because the situation is untenable.
“Despite the governor’s slogans, there are, in fact, no established thresholds to this effect that came from the public health experts in his state government,” they wrote. “In reality, his own public health officials in the health department have no idea what inputs he is using to make opening decisions.”
The accusations by the group come as the state Ethics Commission has opened an investigation into leaks, after NJ Advance Media informed the Department of Health on May 6 it had internal documents identifying the number of nursing homes with a shortage of personal protective equipment, sources within the group said. They spoke to NJ Advance Media on condition of anonymity out of fear of losing their jobs because they were not authorized to speak to the press.
The group claimed they were told “to avoid putting any concerns into email” as they were cut off from meetings and discussions.
The governor acknowledged the leak investigation when he was asked about it during his daily coronavirus briefing with the media Friday in Trenton.
“People leaking things and giving the outside world some sense of how the sausage is made, as it were, you know, I’ve got no time for that and that’s got to stop. The fact of the matter is Judy, and I and (State Police Col.) Pat (Callahan) are up here literally every day,” Murphy said.
A New Jersey Health Department official fired last week for allegedly failing to disclose a side job — former assistant commissioner Christopher Neuwirth, whose role included emergency preparedness — was also was the target of that investigation, three sources told NJ Advance Media.
The anonymous authors call not only the resignation of Persichilli, but an investigation into State Police Col. Patrick J. Callahan “for neglect and failure to respond to health officials’ concerns around fair PPE allocation and other matters;” and also Human Services Commissioner Carole Johnson, who recommended Manatt for the consulting job and knows its senior officials because they worked together during the Obama administration.
The letters ends with a plea for help.
“We beg for your help. We come with training, experience, and a motivation only to help the residents of this state whether the crisis. But we have found a Commissioner, and an administration, that seems to care more about prevailing in their own childish war gaming than they do about protecting the public’s health. We need and deserve better in New Jersey,” the letter said.
Through his spokesman, Sweeney declined to comment.
Two state Republican lawmakers expressed alarm at the contents of the anonymous letter and urged the bipartisan committee to convene soon.
State Sen. Declan O’Scanlon, R-Monmouth, called the letter “the single most concerning leak-letter from sitting public employees that I’ve ever seen.”
State Assemblywoman Serena DiMaso, R-Monmouth added: “We vocally expressed concern about how long-term care was being handled, but this letter goes beyond what we even thought.”
The latest public opinion polls released in early May say the vast majority of residents support the governor and his handling of the pandemic.
“All of this jockeying and petty infighting has distracted from the real task at hand: finalizing a widespread testing and contact tracing plan that will allow New Jersey to open up safely again. As we have been seeing, the Governor has the right talking points around ‘data determines dates,’ but it is still unclear to us what data that is, and when or how it will trigger opening,” according to the letter. “And if it is elusive to us as public health officials in the state, it is certainly elusive to you as lawmakers, and by extension, the general public in New Jersey.”
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