Adding to what seems like an ever-expanding trend of vaccination mandates, Gov. Phil Murphy announced Monday that all grade school personnel and state employees in New Jersey must be immunized against COVID-19 in the coming months or submit to weekly testing.

Murphy said he would sign an executive order that would apply to all full- and part-time workers at public, parochial and private schools serving preschool through grade 12 — including substitute teachers, administrative and custodial staff and contract employees — and those employed in any capacity by state agencies, authorities, and public colleges and universities. While an exact count was not immediately available, the group is likely to top 200,000 workers, including what Murphy’s staff said were some 64,000 state employees, all of whom would need to get tested frequently if they didn’t provide proof of vaccination by Oct. 18.

“As the school year rapidly approaches, we are continuing to do all we can to ensure as safe a start as possible,” Murphy said Monday at his regular pandemic briefing, which was not held last week while Murphy spent 13 days in Italy with his family. “We know that strong masking and vaccination protocols, in tandem with other safety measures, are our best consolidated tool for keeping our schools open for full-time, in-person instruction and our educational communities safe.”

The announcement was expected

The announcement — widely anticipated among school and public health officials — follows an early August order Murphy issued requiring all students and school personnel to mask up when they return to indoor, in-person classes, a decision that sparked protests from some parents. Murphy also signed an executive order requiring workers in health care, elder care and corrections to be vaccinated or get tested at least weekly starting in early September.

Several private health care systems in New Jersey have already gone further, firing workers who refuse to be immunized — or fail to document a formal exemption — and the federal government has proposed withholding Medicaid and Medicare funding from nursing homes that fail to impose vaccination mandates. Generally speaking, health care industry leaders have largely embraced the expansion of these government mandates — although not necessarily the threat to withhold funding — and labor unions have supported the policies as long as they contain a testing option as an alternative to the shot.

NJEA support

Leadership at the New Jersey Education Association, the powerful union that represents most of the state’s roughly 150,000 teachers, quickly issued a statement Monday supporting Murphy’s announcement and pledged to continue to urge eligible individuals to get vaccinated.

“For months now, NJEA has strongly supported and publicly promoted vaccination for all eligible individuals,” it read. “COVID-19 vaccines are the best tool we have to better protect our schools and communities against this pandemic and the terrible toll it continues to take. Public health experts agree on the importance of widespread vaccination. That is why we strongly agree that Gov. Murphy’s executive order is appropriate and responsible under current conditions.”

Murphy’s announcement came the same day the Food and Drug Administration gave full approval for those 16 years and older to receive Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine, one of three serums that have been in use for months under a federal emergency use authorization. Pfizer shots also remain available under that emergency status for children ages 12 to 15.

Persichilli: Race is on against delta

New Jersey Department of Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli said Monday that the department’s community-based vaccination volunteers report that the lack of full FDA approval has left some residents hesitant about the shot. Persichilli urged all those eligible to be vaccinated, including with booster shots when they are eligible for those. Federal officials called for all immunized adults to get another dose eight months after their last shot, a process that will start the week of Sept. 20 with health care and elder care workers, with other groups to follow.

Nearly 5.5 million people have been vaccinated in New Jersey since the vaccines were first available in December, but the number of COVID-19 cases continues to rise, with most of the diagnoses, hospitalizations and deaths involving people who were not immunized. But the impact of the highly transmissible delta variant — which now accounts for 94% of cases in the state — is clear in the rising number of new infections. New daily cases climbed from a low point this summer of fewer than 200 to more than 1,000 new diagnoses every day in August, with Friday’s case count nearly reaching 3,000, according to state data.

“We are in a race against the highly transmissible delta variant,” Persichilli said at the briefing Monday. An individual infected with the original strain, alpha, can pass the virus to as many as three other people, she said, but one person with delta can transmit the variant to as many as nine other people.

School-based vaccination sites

Public health officials are particularly concerned about the growing impact on children — who are being infected and hospitalized in rising numbers — and Persichilli said the health department is working to create more than 100 school-based vaccination sites to help reduce the risk among this group. Some 53% of children ages 12 to 17 are now fully immunized, she said, up 3% from last week. “But we must do better,” she added, noting that school opens in two weeks, and some 323,000 kids in this age group remain unvaccinated.

“As the governor said, the most important thing that everyone can do is to get vaccinated,” Persichilli said, including pregnant women, children and those in communities with low immunization rates.

Murphy said Monday that implementing the new policy requiring vaccinations or tests for school employees and state workers would not pose a serious challenge. His office did not have data available on the current level of immunization among these groups, but some nationwide surveys have suggested the rate among educators could top 90%.

“We do not believe that meeting this order will be especially hard to do,” Murphy said. “We have received multiple local reports that point to an overwhelming majority of our educational and classroom leaders having already taken their personal responsibility to their families and students and colleagues seriously and gotten vaccinated. And I thank them for continuing to be models for their communities,” he said.

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