All NJ health care workers must get COVID booster shots or face firing, under Murphy order

A health care worker in the ICU at Holy Name Medical Center in Teaneck assists with a COVID patient.
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All New Jersey health care workers will need to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and receive booster shots or face termination, under an order Gov. Phil Murphy signed Wednesday.

The order also covers all workers in congregate settings, such as group homes or prisons.

Regular testing for unvaccinated workers in lieu of getting shots is no longer an option under the order. Exemptions can be made for those with medical conditions or "deeply held" religious beliefs, Murphy said.

"We are no longer going to look past those who put their colleagues and, perhaps more importantly, those who are their responsibility in danger of COVID," Murphy said Wednesday before touring a new COVID testing site in Galloway Township. "That has to stop."

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About 43% of nursing home and other long-term care facility staff have gotten a booster shot, significantly less than the 88% who are fully vaccinated. That's also still less than the general population. About 48% of all New Jerseyans eligible for a booster shot have received one, State officials say they do not have booster statistics on other health care workers.

The mandate drew different reactions from two of New Jersey's largest health care unions

Debbie White, a nurse and president of the Health Professionals and Allied Employees union, said the mandate could lead to a shortage of doctors and nurses at a time when health care facilities are already stressed with an employee shortage.

"We are in the middle of an enormous surge in our hospitals and many health care workers are sick," she said. "Every health care facility in New Jersey is faced with the challenge of finding enough staff to provide care. While we appreciate the need to increase vaccination rates, this does not solve the problems that exist right now."

George Gresham, president of 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, said he supports the mandate and believes universal vaccination is the best way to protect workers and speed up a return to normalcy.

"This includes ensuring that everyone has the maximum protection against the virus and its potentially devastating effects, and we have long supported vaccinations and boosters according to established science,” Gresham said.

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The announcement comes as COVID hospitalizations declined for the seventh day in a row, to 5,204 on Tuesday night. Intensive care admissions and the number of patients on ventilators declined slightly to 844 and 519, respectively.

Murphy on Wednesday also announced 145 more deaths related to COVID in New Jersey. That brings the total number of New Jersey deaths during the pandemic to 30,315.

Murphy also announced 8,467 new COVID infections confirmed through PCR tests and 2,720 confirmed through antigen tests.

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 to allow President Joe Biden’s vaccine mandate for health care workers at facilities that receive federal funding through Medicare and Medicaid. That measure affects about 10 million workers. The decision came at the same time the court ruled that the Biden administration did not have the authority to force a vaccine mandate on large private employers.

Murphy’s prior vaccine mandate for health care workers allowed for a semi-regular testing alternative. But several of the largest hospital chains in New Jersey, including Hackensack Meridian and RWJ Barnabas, have already required their workers to be fully vaccinated with no testing option. They have fired dozens who refused.

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Under Murphy's new order, health care workers have until Jan. 27 to get their first vaccine dose and must get their second dose by Feb. 28. Those who work in high-risk congregate living facilities have until Feb. 16 to get their first dose and March 30 for the second.

Health care workers who are already fully vaccinated and eligible for a booster shot will have until Feb. 28 to get the booster, while fully vaccinated workers in congregate settings have until March 30. Those who are not eligible yet for a booster will have up to three weeks after they are eligible to get the booster.

Booster shots appear to be highly effective in preventing severe illness, especially during the surge caused by the extremely contagious omicron variant.

Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli said New Jerseyans with booster shots are three times less likely to be hospitalized with COVID.

Hackensack Meridian reported this month that none of its 90 COVID patients on ventilators on Dec. 31 had gotten a booster, and only 7% of those in intensive care and 11% of those hospitalized had gotten one.

“The science tells us that it’s no longer good enough to just receive your primary series, as being boosted is necessary to protect yourself and those around you,” Murphy said.

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The new order drew criticism from some Republican lawmakers, including state Sen. Holly Schepisi of River Vale in Bergen County.

"Instead of giving them extra support, they’re getting another new mandate from Governor Murphy that will further thin their ranks and increase the workload of those who remain," she said in a statement. "It doesn’t make any sense and it certainly won’t be good for patients.”

The vaccination rate among hospital workers is more than 90%, but booster data was not immediately available.

Cathy Bennett, president and CEO of the New Jersey Hospitals Association, praised the mandate, saying it "affirms the position that our hospitals have long held -- the importance of following the science and having our staff vaccinated."

Facilities covered under the order

All workers including contractors at these facilities must be fully vaccinated with a booster shot or risk losing their job.

  • Hospitals including acute, pediatric, inpatient rehabilitation, and psychiatric hospitals, including specialty hospitals, and ambulatory surgical centers; long-term care facilities

  • Intermediate care facilities

  • Residential detox, short-term, and long-term residential substance abuse disorder treatment facilities

  • Ambulatory care, urgent care clinics, dialysis centers, Federally Qualified Health Centers, family planning sites and opioid treatment

  • Daycare centers for children and adults

  • Licensed home health agencies

  • State and county correctional facilities

  • All congregate-care settings operated by the Juvenile Justice Commission, which includes secure care facilities and residential community homes

  • Licensed community residences for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities and traumatic brain injury

  • Licensed community residences for adults with mental illness

  • Certified day programs for individuals with IDD and TBI

  • Group homes and psychiatric community homes

Scott Fallon has covered the COVID-19 pandemic since its onset in March 2020. To get unlimited access to the latest news about the pandemic's impact on New Jersey, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

Email: fallon@northjersey.com

Twitter: @newsfallon

This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Phil Murphy mandates COVID booster for NJ health care workers

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