On March 4, 2020, New Jersey Commissioner of Health Judy Persichilli received a phone call informing her the first case of COVID-19 had made its way to New Jersey. That call marked the beginning of a perilous journey that, in many ways, continues to this day.
“It is really difficult to sit here and recall those dark [early] days,” Persichilli said today at NJBIA’s Meet the Decision Makers event. “Over one weekend, our hospitals were challenged with a surge of patients I had never seen in my lifetime; nurses were wearing trash bags to protect themselves because there was no PPE; and we commandeered anesthesia machines and jerry-rigged them to become ventilators.”
Fast forward 17 months and the situation certainly is not as grim, but Persichilli said that the reality is no one can say when the pandemic will truly be over.
“It may never be over totally,” she said. “This pandemic more than likely will become endemic, and there will be low levels of this disease [always present].”
She added that vaccination remains the most effective tool we currently have against the virus.
This week, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) submitted its emergency temporary standard (ETS) on vaccination and testing mandates for businesses to the White House for final review. This came after President Biden directed the agency to write rules requiring private companies with 100 or more employees to vaccinate their staff against COVID-19, or test those who aren’t at least once a week.
Persichilli said there is a good possibility that small businesses under 100 employees will not be held to the same standards as larger businesses.
“Every single employer has to look at the businesses that they are in and decide how much they want to protect employees from each other,” Persichilli said. “That includes ventilation, distancing and masking, but more importantly, supporting them to get vaccinated.”
For employees that would be required to show a negative test under the impending rules, the commissioner said there will be funded static testing sites in every county that employers will be able to send employees to get tested. She added that, despite a delay due to current supply chain issues, the federal government will also be making millions of on-site antigen testing kits available to businesses.
Additionally, for employers that would like to provide employees with an opportunity to get vaccinated, Persichilli said that the Department of Health can set up pop-up vaccination sites at a business’s request.
“We will do that for every single employer, because that is how important it is,” Persichilli said. “Supporting businesses at this point is the most important thing.”