Hundreds of thousands of New Jersey workers returning from the Labor Day weekend to their jobs in health care, elder services and corrections will need to be vaccinated against COVID-19 or be tested for the coronavirus at least once a week under a new state policy.

Gov. Phil Murphy said Monday that additional groups — including transit workers, other state employees and college students — may face similar requirements in the weeks to come if New Jersey’s vaccination rate remain insufficient to counter the spread of the more powerful delta variant of the virus.

“The spread of the delta variant and its widespread impacts are no longer something that we can look at casually. Almost every day we are receiving some new research note that shows this variant to be even more contagious and more deadly than previously thought,” Murphy said at his weekly pandemic media briefing Monday. “We also know that the surest way to end this pandemic is through vaccination.”

Immunity not evenly distributed

More than 5.3 million people have been vaccinated against COVID-19 in New Jersey, but this immunity is not evenly distributed. Immunization rates remain low in a handful of larger, urban communities and several small, rural towns, and among younger people, particularly those younger than age 18. In Morris County, nearly 65% of residents are fully vaccinated, while in Cumberland County, fewer than 42% have received all their shots, according to tracking of state data by NJ Spotlight News.

To boost vaccination numbers statewide, the Murphy administration said the new vaccine policy will apply to workers at state and private health care facilities. That includes acute care, specialty and psychiatric hospitals as well as nursing homes and other long-term care sites, centers for developmentally disabled individuals, home health agencies and all forms of jails and state prisons. Those who do not provide their employer with proof of vaccination by Sept. 7 will be required to undergo coronavirus testing once or twice weekly, officials said.

Murphy said his team is still finalizing the plan’s details, and his staff did not respond to a question about whether the new policy will require the governor to sign an executive order or take some other formal action. The administration — which last week urged all residents, regardless of vaccination status, to mask up in certain indoor situations — also seemed unsure exactly how many workers this new vaccination policy would involve.

Expanding policy to transportation, other workers?

But Murphy stressed that the policy may also be expanded to cover more sectors where the work puts employees, or the public, at particular risk for viral spread. “To be clear — this standard is the absolute floor,” he said, noting that hospitals and other private-sector facilities included in the initial policy can opt for a “more ambitious timeline” or a stricter immunization mandate without a testing option.

“And to be clear, we retain the ability and authority to go further if we do not see significant increases in vaccination rates within this worker population,” Murphy said, noting that state officials were now considering requiring the same of staff at NJ Transit and Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, as New York state has now done.

Vaccine mandates without testing option

Several health care organizations have already required staff to be vaccinated — without offering a testing option — including RWJBarnabas Health, among the state’s largest hospital systems, and University Hospital, in Newark, the state’s only public acute-care facility. Dr. Shereef Elnahal, president and CEO of University, said the mandate, which takes effect this week, helped drive up the immunization rate among hospital staff from just about 55% to 95%.

While almost all New Jersey’s nursing-home and assisted-living residents have been immunized, it has been harder to convince staff at long-term care facilities — which were particularly hard-hit by the pandemic — to get their shots. Department of Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli said Monday that 71% of long-term care workers statewide are now vaccinated, but some facilities have rates as low as 33%.

“Vaccination is the best tool we have to end this pandemic,” Persichilli said, noting that outbreaks are now active at 38 long-term care facilities, more than double the number recorded two weeks ago. She called the new policy “an important step” in protecting fragile nursing-home residents, hospital patients and other vulnerable New Jerseyans.

“None of us would want our vulnerable loved ones put in danger due to their caregiver or health care provider,” Persichilli added. “And as a nurse, I know that our health care providers, given what they have experienced over the past 18 months, do not want to expose those they care for to any unnecessary risk.”

Health organizations voice support

Vaccination rates are now 80% or higher among employees of hospitals and health systems here, according to New Jersey Hospital Association president Cathy Bennett, who welcomed the governor’s action. “Vaccination facts show the efficiency of the vaccines in protecting against this virus, including the unrelenting Delta variant, and their success in reducing COVID hospitalizations and deaths,” Bennett told NJ Spotlight News in an email. “The Governor’s action today will further propel these efforts to protect staff, patients and residents through vaccination.”

Murphy’s announcement was also acceptable to the Health Professionals and Allied Employees, New Jersey’s largest health care union, which represents some 1,400 nurses, social workers and other professionals. While the labor group had opposed vaccine mandates, HPAE president Debbie White said she supported “the governor’s decision to create a pathway to increase vaccination rates while enforcing routine testing of those who are not able to be vaccinated.”

“We also know there are other mitigation strategies available to help us stem the transmission of coronavirus variants, including the delta variant,” said White, a nurse herself, urging people to mask up indoors — regardless of vaccination status — avoid crowds and wash their hands regularly. “Let’s go back to the things that worked for us in the past year,” she said.

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