Persichilli: NJ could have stopped COVID-19 sooner with Trump info

Assemblyman John Burzichelli launched a political attack against the president during online budget hearings for the New Jersey Department of Health, pointing to Bob Woodward’s new book that reported President Donald Trump knew on Feb. 7 that COVID-19 was highly virulent and spread through the air.

Democrats asked New Jersey Department of Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli if she would have advised for an earlier shutdown if she had heard what Woodward was hearing from the president.

“Absolutely,” Persichilli said. “If we had shutdown, basically shutdown the long-term care facilities even a month earlier since we had our first outbreak in assisted living around March 11, we would have stopped that outbreak.”

Persichilli said the longer lead time let the virus spread like wildfire, especially through long-term care facilities, ultimately leading to 7,000 deaths there, among the nation’s highest. She says health officials would have started screening workers much earlier and quoted a study.

“We do know now, the most recent study, that 45% of the spread in long-term care was the result of staff working at multiple facilities. That study just came out over the weekend. That’s a startling percentage,” Persichilli said.

Republicans bristled.

“I got to say, commissioner, I’m disappointed,” said Assemblyman Hal Wirths. “We can blame everything on the president, but I think one of the things this administration is lacking the most by far is taking any responsibility. We all make mistakes.”

He also noted the U.S. outbreak started in a Seattle nursing home and said New Jersey should have built a fortress around long-term care. But Persichilli said she called the Seattle facility in March, but by then the virus had already spread.

“It was already in long-term care. So what would I have done differently? Whatever we did in March, I would have done in February,” Persichilli said.

Looking forward to fall and the possible “twindemic” of flu season plus a COVID-19 surge, the commissioner says the health department is monitoring supplies of personal protective equipment and staffing plans. She says if a vaccine is ready to go this fall, the proposed $2.2 billion budget can cover distribution, but supplies could get tight. She couldn’t say whether the vaccine would be mandatory.

But Republicans pressed for answers on another hotly-contested issue: why the Murphy administration considers it safe to stand in line at the Motor Vehicle Commission, but not to vote in person for the Nov. 3 election?

“I’m trying to figure out what’s the difference between voting or standing in line, hundreds of people in line at MVCs? Are you saying it’s not safe at the MVC? Or you’re saying it is safe, and that voting would be safe if you had social distancing, lines, and masks, as I would advocate doing?” Wirths said.

“I’m not registering an opinion on either/or. I just want you to know that the Department of Health stands for maintaining the health and safety of all the people of New Jersey,” Persichelli said.

Budgets and politics remain inseparable.