New Jersey Governor Missed Early Chances to Slow Covid’s Spread, Doctor Says

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Governor Phil Murphy missed early opportunities to restrain the spread of Covid-19 in New Jersey nursing and veterans homes, an infectious-disease physician and others told Republican lawmakers.

On March 27, 2020, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a report warning of “very rapid spread, despite early adoption of infection prevention and control measures” in such residences. Less than a week later, the Murphy administration -- following a move by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo -- ordered long-term care homes to start accepting infectious residents.

“The move was done to make some room in the hospitals, but the way they did it actually made no sense,” Stephen Smith, a physician with a practice in East Orange, said in a hearing organized by state senators and Assembly members. New Jersey’s long-term care facilities account for about 8,000 Covid-19 deaths, 38% of its total.

Smith, in an April 20, 2020, appearance on Fox News’s “The Ingraham Angle,” said he was successfully treating Covid-19 patients with the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine, averting any need to put them on ventilators. “I think this is the beginning of the end of the pandemic,” he said. In June, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration cited unlikely effectiveness and health risks when it revoked its emergency-use authorization for the drug, which had been touted by then-President Donald Trump.

The handling of Covid-19 in long-term care facilities is under scrutiny nationally, with the U.S. Justice Department examining data from New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Michigan. New Jersey’s attorney general is looking at possible misconduct by some home operators and Murphy has promised a review of New Jersey’s coronavirus response.

Democrats who were invited to testify Friday, including Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli, declined to appear. Murphy’s communications staff didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

“These so-called ‘hearings’, featuring only Republican members, are a nakedly political election-year stunt,” Alyana Alfaro, a spokesperson for Murphy, said in a prepared statement.

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The hearing was overseen by Senator Joe Pennacchio, a retired dentist from Morris County, who said it was “important that this committee is grounded in science and in medicine.”

Pennacchio, state co-chairman of Donald Trump’s re-election campaign, in May addressed hundreds of protesters -- mostly unmasked, against CDC guidance -- at a Jersey Shore rally to demand a reopening. He told crowd members that their “freedoms are being denied under the guise of public health.”

At Friday’s hearing, Smith, the physician, told lawmakers that New Jersey should have started contact tracing in March and April, amid hundreds of deaths a day.

“There was no outreach. There was no one saying, ‘OK, well, most people came from somewhere and the people that they’re living with are obviously very high risk -- let’s find them,”’ Smith said. “It should have been set up right away.”

Glenn Osborne, an ex-Marine who lives at the state-run Menlo Park veterans home, said his living unit alone has lost more than half its 57 residents. They were told to maintain distance, he said, while staff went without protective equipment.

“The administration told me and the fellow residents that there was no need to worry, because there was no Covid in the building,” Osborne said.

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