With just five weeks left until Election Day, the politics of the COVID-19 pandemic are coming into full bloom in New Jersey.
The skirmishes are playing out large and small — at the first gubernatorial debate Tuesday, at school board meetings and soccer games, on college campuses and in personal encounters at the corner store. Both major political parties blame the other for that state of play.
While many elements of the pandemic response have become controversial — in New Jersey and nationwide — the two factors that spark the most passionate fights are masks and vaccines. Public health experts consider face coverings to be a basic and essential tool in fighting the spread of the coronavirus, but debate has raged over when people should be forced to wear them and the impact they have on youngsters.
New Jersey was the site of a vaccine battle before the pandemic, when lawmakers tried to boost the rates among school children of immunizations against multiple diseases by eliminating religious exemptions, a proposal that sparked an unprecedented backlash from angry protesters who stormed the State House and derailed the bill. The recent introduction of state and federal mandates for COVID-19 vaccines has only magnified this animosity.
“I think what people are seeing now is a tension between the government’s responsibility to keep people safe and the government’s responsibility to protect your constitutional freedoms, both of which are extremely important,” said Dr. Shereef Elnahal, president and CEO of University Hospital in Newark, during a recent forum on COVID-19, health and New Jersey’s 2021 elections hosted by NJ Spotlight News.
“A lot of folks who advocate for the freedom to not wear a mask, the freedom to continue to go to work in person without being vaccinated … A lot of those folks unfortunately end up in the hospital and express regret for not having taken these safety precautions,” Elnahal, the former state health commissioner, continued. “I think we have to think about this in terms of a hierarchy of needs and a hierarchy of risks to the population.”
On the attack
In their first gubernatorial debate Tuesday, Gov. Phil Murphy, a first-term Democrat seeking reelection in November, defended his COVID-19 response against attacks from Republican challenger Jack Ciattarelli, a former state assemblyman. Ciattarelli and GOP candidates in other races have hammered Murphy on the decision to allow infected hospital patients to be admitted or return to nursing homes, something critics contend added to the high death toll at long-term care facilities.
Murphy insisted his administration was “crystal clear” about requiring nursing homes to separate infected residents from others in the facility to protect against spread. He has also required health care workers, school staff and other groups to be vaccinated against COVID-19 or submit to regular testing and has mandated the use of masks in schools, hospitals and other health care settings. “There was no playbook for dealing with this,” Murphy said of the early months of the pandemic.
The coronavirus has resulted in more than 1.1 million COVID-19 diagnoses and more than 27,000 related deaths in New Jersey, of which at least 8,000 involved nursing home residents, according to state data. Some 151 facilities still had active outbreaks Wednesday.
During the debate Tuesday Ciattarelli tried to walk back a recent statement where he downplayed the impact COVID-19 has on children, a comment experts dismiss and something Democrats have used against him. While those under age 18 make up just over 13% of New Jersey cases, more than 130,000 youngsters have been infected with the virus, and eight have died.
However, Ciattarelli still insisted Tuesday that “children in general are not as susceptible to serious illness and death as adults.” He also said he does not believe government has the right to “tell people they have to take medicine” or force anyone to wear a mask.
Some have said that suggesting children aren’t at risk is irresponsible, even dangerous. “I think [politicians] are 100% responsible for advancing the truth,” said Perry Halkitis, dean of the Rutgers School of Public Health, during the NJ Spotlight News election forum on COVID-19 and health.
“I know politicians use data to their advantage,” Halkitis added. But he said Ciattarelli’s statement was overly dismissive of the risk kids do face, even if they do suffer statistically lower rates of infection, hospitalization and death. For any candidate to manipulate data in such a way is irresponsible to the well-being of children in our state,” he said
When untruths go viral
Dr. Annette Reboli, dean of the Cooper Medical School at Rowan University, who also took part in the forum, said untruths can spread rapidly in today’s culture, expanding the scope of damage. She urged voters to listen to public health experts.
“The role that social media is playing in the spread of misinformation, this has been quite disconcerting,” Reboli said. “It’s difficult sometimes, because you see on social media the way people take news pieces and use them in a way that isn’t a balanced presentation to try to score a political point on a pandemic issue.”
During the debate Murphy stressed that science clearly indicates masks and vaccines work to protect people, and communities, against the virus. Insisting on personal freedoms that put others at risk, “that’s nonsense that gets people killed,” he said.
But clearly other New Jerseyans disagree. Battles over school masking mandates are becoming more common at school board meetings, with parents berating local education officials even when the policies are set by state officials in Trenton. At a meeting in Howell in mid-September a community member comparing mask requirements to the conditions in Nazi Germany, the Asbury Park Press reported. School nurses have also been targeted for their role in enforcing infection-control measures, the paper noted.
Talking points for GOP lawmakers
Republican state lawmakers have also blasted Murphy’s administration for mask and vaccine requirements, with many taking particular offense to the mandate requiring face coverings for children as young as 2 years old when attending day care or preschool. Sen. Michael Doherty (R-Warren) compared it to child abuse in a news release earlier this month and Sen. Kristin Corrado (R-Passaic) sent the governor a letter asking for clarification on the policy.
Both GOP lawmakers cited recommendations by the World Health Organization that masks not be required for children under age 5, a popular Republican talking point. The WHO also notes that in some cases face coverings might be appropriate for children and urges people to follow local guidance.
The science of masking, vaccines and other pandemic precautions were the focus of discussion during a hearing hosted in July by a handful of New Jersey Republican senators. The forum included testimony from parents who said their children were suffering physical and psychological symptoms from wearing masks. It also included comments from scientists who questioned the protection these face coverings offered.
Experts included a Harvard University researcher who was a creator of The Great Barrington Declaration — a statement from a wide range of infectious disease experts and epidemiologists who oppose the widespread use of restrictive COVID-19 policies — and a former federal official alleged to have leaked to the Trump White House an early version of a study on the use of the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19. The efficacy of the treatment has since been largely dismissed.
Sen. Joseph Pennacchio (R-Morris), opened the hearing by critiquing Murphy’s “arbitrary and not-science-based policies” on masking young people. “The administration never got it,” he said. “They never realized that their pandemic effort had to be balanced in weight against the negative outcomes it would have in our communities, on our children.”