New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy’s efforts to contain the COVID-19 pandemic have won him new fans and more than a few new foes. His dramatic decision to self-quarantine last week after exposure to two infected staff members typified what he called his “above and beyond” approach, and it drew mixed reactions. But the state’s COVID-19 cases are on a worrisome rise. And some of the Murphy administration’s other moves related to the disease, including the skittish way it has handled public information about the death toll in nursing homes, are sending mixed signals.
On the plus side: The launch of a “COVID-19 oversight” dashboard by the Governor’s Disaster Recovery Office should help public monitoring of Trenton’s use of $2.4 billion in federal CARES Act money. This transparency is especially welcome given that New Jersey has been slow to tap federal pandemic relief funds totaling $12.9 billion, according to a recent report by the Office of the State Auditor. The oversight tool is something states such as Pennsylvania ought to launch as well, and not just because the magnitude of those dollars demands higher accountability. Pennsylvania also has been accused of being slow to disperse the federal money.
Both states also share shortcomings on nursing home transparency. New Jersey’s 400 nursing homes and long-term care facilities account for nearly 7,000 of the state’s 16,200 COVID-19 deaths, and the Murphy administration has a poor track record on transparency and other issues. Early in the pandemic, as the governor appeared regularly at epic public briefings about COVID-19, the state refused to release case numbers reported at individual nursing homes. The rationale ostensibly stemmed from privacy concerns, as if patients' identities inevitably would become public through simple case numbers and locations. It took a horrifying revelation that the bodies of 17 deceased coronavirus patients were overwhelming a Sussex County nursing home’s morgue to force New Jersey to make the essential information available to the public.
Unfortunately, the state health department in July abandoned its new and improved reporting system and now highlights only emergent cases and “active” outbreaks in specific facilities. The system now omits information about earlier outbreaks by facility, instead offering a combined cumulative number for them all. Health department officials insisted that what they call a “clearer, real-time picture” is more useful to the public. That’s debatable, although the shift surely seems useful to nursing home chains and other operators worried about the public image of their facilities.
The steps Trenton is taking to reform policies governing nursing homes are noteworthy. In August, Murphy announced $155 million in additional funding to expand testing in long term care facilities and to help them meet new state infection control directives. Other efforts include creating a task force to oversee the nursing home industry and set up an emergency operation center dedicated to long-term care.
The reforms reflect the recommendations of a consultant’s report the administration commissioned to review shortcomings at the facilities and in state oversight during the early stage of pandemic. Momentum for these changes was largely fueled by public attention, as well as outrage.
The lesson here: the public is paying close attention, and in these life-and-death issues, transparency is the best medicine.