Op-Ed: New Jersey’s ‘Road Back’ Brings an Opportunity to Go Forward on Equity

Gov. Murphy’s plan for recovery from the pandemic should address disproportionate effects of the virus on high-risk communities
Kathleen Noonan, left,and Allison Hamblin

Gov. Murphy’s Road Back identifies six principles to put the state on the road to recovery from COVID-19. This roadmap is vital, as are the Restart Commission and the Restart and Recovery Advisory Council — both convened by the governor to support long-term recovery of our economy and public life. It is designed to ensure that the sacrifices made by so many New Jerseyans are not for naught. For some New Jerseyans, however, this moment provides an opportunity to address the disproportionate effects of COVID-19 on their communities, and to make sure we don’t increase these disparities in the months ahead.

The governor, first lady and lieutenant governor have worked to support a robust agenda of equity and inclusion and now have the opportunity to pave a road forward to address years of inequity and underinvestment in certain communities. As the Murphy administration works to define the milestones along the “road back,” we propose that each principle incorporate a “go forward” approach that ensures we don’t leave behind the communities already hit hardest by this pandemic. The following are potential approaches for the six key principles of the Road Back plan. This list is not exhaustive, but can help stimulate ideas that can be incorporated into the administration’s work ahead.

Principle 1: Demonstrate sustained reductions in new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations

The state Department of Health’s daily dashboard includes demographic information, which is critical to understanding the  virus’ impact on different communities. It also identifies the underlying health conditions that result in COVID-19 complications, including many diseases that disproportionately affect the poor and communities of color. A go forward approach would ensure sustained reductions in cases and hospitalizations are occurring at the municipality level prior to loosening restrictions, ensuring that aggregate trends do not mask local hot spots in neighborhoods where social distancing is more difficult to achieve. A go forward approach would also target ways to address the underlying health and social conditions that made COVID-19 more dangerous for some New Jersey residents.

Principle 2: Expand testing capacity

Gov. Murphy recognizes that expanded test capacity is critical to getting ahead of any new outbreaks. Under this principle, the state would prioritize testing for health care workers, essential personnel and vulnerable populations. A go forward approach to defining “vulnerable populations” would include individuals living in low-resourced communities, who are at high risk for continued infection. Similarly, “essential personnel” should include not just health and public safety workers, but all people working in jobs that serve customers in person, such as retail workers or workers in congregate facilities such as group homes. In order to restart our economy, child care workers, camp counselors and teachers need to feel safe to go back to work, and this requires that we identify them as “essential” for testing. State emergency preparedness regulations could be changed to reflect these broader definitions so we are ready for a next crisis and less likely to experience its effects so disproportionately. Unfortunately, we are all aware of where restrictions on who could be tested resulted in missed opportunities to contain the spread of the virus during its first phase. In addition, to incentivize people to get tested, the state might consider two-week sick-pay stipends for individuals who do not have sick leave or are working off the books.

Principle 3: Implement robust contact tracing

Contact tracing will be especially important as we head into the fall and winter. A go forward approach would prioritize contact tracing resources to the highest-risk communities, as defined by per-resident hospitalization rates, and engage community-based organizations to help, as this will require knocking on doors in lower-income communities. Recently, there has been an explosion of interest in contact-tracing worker programs — some volunteer, some paid, some for college students, some for community members. A go forward approach would incorporate a percentage of these jobs into the state’s new public health landscape and offer a living wage and benefits. This crisis has made clear that our country’s state and local health departments are spread thin and under-resourced. The workers hired to do contact tracing now could work in the future on the chronic health conditions that caused COVID-19 complications.

Principle 4: Secure safe places and resources for isolation and quarantine

New Jersey has worked hard to find safe places for people to isolate and quarantine. Many of those who have needed to use one of the “quarantine hotels” or other temporary settings for quarantine or isolation are people waiting for housing, either in a shelter or a sub-par housing situation, even before the virus struck. A go forward approach would track demand for safe places by community and by race and ethnicity, to quantify where these needs are and enable a more robust housing response in the near and long term. A go forward approach might also track how many people were released from quarantine shelters into permanent housing. This would require work to identify units for people who are challenging to house, but this crisis has brought health- and community-based organizations together in new ways. Now is an opportune time to think out of the box about housing challenges that have thwarted the best public policy thinkers for a very long time.

Principle 5: Execute a responsible economic restart

A key challenge to getting back to work will be availability of affordable child care options, particularly to the extent schools remain closed and summer camps are cancelled. A go forward approach would ensure that low-cost child care options are made available to returning workers residing in low-income/low-resource communities, for example, by expanding eligibility for the Emergency Child Care Assistance Program using a broader definition of “essential personnel” as described above. The Restart Commission should also consider extension of leave benefits in communities that are delayed in reaching reopening milestones. There may also be a need for additional legal protections so that child care workers and summer camps can get back to work without fear of being sued.

Principle 6: Ensure New Jersey’s resiliency

The governor is wise to ensure we learn from this first phase of COVID-19 so we can identify what New Jersey did well and what was more challenging. A go forward approach would ensure that a playbook for the next pandemic included lessons through a diversity, equity and inclusion lens, and that outcomes are analyzed by race, ethnicity and zip code to identify disparities in all aspects of the response. For example, in some communities, we know that transportation to test sites was a barrier, as was the need to have a car to obtain a drive-through test in other places. While some communities created “walk-in sites,” mobile testing might be a more effective way to ensure access. We also know that testing times from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. made it difficult for some workers to get tested. We must also analyze which governance models and implementation approaches worked most effectively, and what strategies enabled the integration of health and social services supports that are so critical for our most vulnerable residents.

The road forward

Over the last two months, New Jerseyans across the state have had to take a major detour, putting their lives on hold to try to stem the spread of COVID-19. For some, it will be easier to pick up the pieces and get back to normalcy than others. As the state refines its road back to recovery, it should be sure to create on-ramps for those hardest hit by the pandemic to support a more equitable journey ahead.