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New Jersey to require health workers to be vaccinated or undergo weekly COVID-19 testing

The governor said New Jersey is "ready and willing to require all staff to be vaccinated as a condition of their employment" if rates don't increase among health workers.

Lauren Nesi administers a COVID-19 vaccine at a Rutgers Health Clinic in Camden earlier this year.
Lauren Nesi administers a COVID-19 vaccine at a Rutgers Health Clinic in Camden earlier this year.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

New Jersey health workers, including those who work in long-term care and assisted-living homes, will soon be required to be vaccinated against the coronavirus or undergo frequent testing, Gov. Phil Murphy announced Monday.

The governor said he expected to eventually expand the requirement to workers in other sectors, such as transit, and indicated he could decide to mandate vaccination for health-care workers if the numbers do not improve after Sept. 7, when the new requirement goes into effect.

It will apply to all staff who enter certain health-care or congregate-living locations, including long-term care homes and assisted living facilities, state correctional and juvenile justice facilities, county jails, behavioral health facilities, acute-care and specialty hospitals, state veterans homes, and inpatient rehabs.

“To be clear, we retain the ability and the authority to go further if we do not see significant increase in vaccination within this worker population,” Murphy said at his regular coronavirus briefing. “If we do not see significant increases in vaccination rates among the employees in these settings, we are ready and willing to require all staff to be vaccinated as a condition of their employment.”

Unlike New York and California, New Jersey has not mandated vaccination for all state employees but the governor did not rule it out. He said state health officials wanted to start with the health-care and assisted living industries.

“None of us would want our vulnerable loved ones put in danger due to their caregiver or health-care provider,” said Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli. “Our health-care providers, given what they experienced over the past 18 months, do not want to expose those they care for to any unnecessary risk.”

» READ MORE: Philly region seeing a ‘substantial’ spread of COVID-19, expanding the area where indoor masks are recommended

Pennsylvania has not implemented any mandates, though local health systems such as Penn Medicine and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia will soon require vaccinations for most employees. Asked whether the state Department of Health was considering any such measures, a spokesperson said Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration “is open to considering all strategies to increase vaccination rates.”

In New Jersey, the vaccination rate among all long-term care facility employees has risen to 71%, Persichilli said, but in some care homes the rate is as low as 33%. And over the last two weeks, the number of virus outbreaks at these facilities has doubled, she added.

Overall, nearly 58% of all New Jerseyans are fully vaccinated, and two-thirds have had at least one dose.

The state will work with employers affected by the requirement to determine the frequency and location of testing for unvaccinated employees, which should be done during work hours, Murphy said. Employees must be tested at least once or twice a week.

State veterans’ homes are already testing unvaccinated employees three times a week, Murphy said, and state correctional facilities, psychiatric hospitals, and development centers have also already implemented testing regimes. University Hospital in Newark has mandated the vaccine for employees, Murphy said.

Private-sector employers not included in the state’s mandate can require testing or vaccination for their employees.

» READ MORE: Philadelphia-area restaurants ask for proof of vaccinations, sparking debate

Murphy said his administration’s conversations with workers’ unions had been constructive, adding, “Folks want to do the right thing.”

Not all supported his move. William Sullivan, president of the New Jersey State Policemen’s Benevolent Association Local 105, which represents state correctional officers who work in juvenile justice facilities and will fall under the new mandate, said his members wouldn’t support a vaccination requirement but are already undergoing regular testing.

“We believe as a union that officers have their right to choose, and if they choose not to get the vaccination that’s their choice, and it shouldn’t be forced,” said Sullivan.

Neither Murphy nor Persichilli said what the current vaccination rate is among all affected health-care workers across the state, but the governor said the spread of the highly transmissible delta variant was a factor in state’s decision to push for more vaccinations among these workers.

“The spread of the delta variant and its widespread impacts are no longer something we can look at causally,” Murphy said. “We know that the surest way to end this pandemic is through vaccination.”