NJ suffered horrible COVID-19 loses. ‘Postmortem’ says it’s not ready for another emergency.

New Jersey remains unprepared for the next public health emergency, according to a new state-commissioned report examining COVID-19’s high death toll in the Garden State and urging officials to improve their emergency planning.

“I know New Jersey will be better off because of this review, and my administration looks forward to working with the legislature on its recommendations,” Gov. Phil Murphy said in a statement on the report, which was prepared by law firm Montgomery McCracken and was released on Monday.

Murphy had said as early as April 2020 that New Jersey would commission an independent “postmortem” of his administration’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. The state finally launched the $9 million study in late 2022.

The report calls for state officials to address disparities among residents that led to uneven outcomes in COVID-19 mortality rates and economic losses as businesses shut down. It says there are straightforward measures officials can take, such as sufficiently funding and staffing the state health department and investing in public health infrastructure more consistently.

“Despite the lessons of the last four years, New Jersey remains underprepared for the next emergency,” the authors wrote, adding that the report should serve as a “call to action.”

It says New Jersey should conduct and audit more emergency plans and training, and that officials at all levels of government must become more aware of what plans and resources exist in case of an emergency.

“Several people in government told us they thought ‘some other agency’ ought to have an emergency preparedness manager,” when that position existed in their own agencies, the report says.

The report also emphasizes that readiness for a health emergency means “substantial and consistent financial support” so that the public health system can quickly ramp up if a global crisis emerges.

COVID-19 has killed more than 36,000 New Jerseyans to date. The report acknowledges that New Jersey faced particular challenges as one of the first states to experience an outbreak in 2020, before the virus’ spread was fully understood. Early death tolls were especially high in congregate settings, including nursing homes and jails.

Still, the report says most officials were unaware of a 2015 “Pandemic Influenza Plan” from the state health department, which was “extremely accurate in predicting what would eventually happen during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The findings reinforce previous state and federal determinations of insufficient infection controls in veterans homes and other long-term-care facilities. The report partly blames those shortcomings on the precarious financial situation facing many nursing homes, which found themselves unable to hire additional staff or procure protective equipment as needed.

Murphy has taken some steps to improve nursing home conditions, according to the report. For instance, he signed a package of legislation in September 2020 to raise the minimum wage for nursing home staff, increase Medicaid reimbursement rates for the facilities and create a task force on safety and quality improvements.

The report credits Murphy’s administration for some of its efforts to combat the virus, including achieving high vaccination rates as COVID-19 shots became available. But the authors also urge New Jersey officials to bolster their public health messaging, given the failure to convince some communities of the need for precautions against the virus’ spread, such as masking and social distancing.

Murphy’s administration sought to combat the widespread misinformation that proliferated during the pandemic, but could have done more to enlist local groups to help with messaging in different communities, the report finds.

Before the pandemic, New Jersey had “a grossly insufficient supply of personal protective equipment” in its stockpile, like masks and gowns, according to the report. The state has built up its stockpile since then, but the report says officials must ensure contingency plans are in place to procure necessary equipment in future crises — including through flexible contracts that would be triggered in emergencies and a portal where critical goods can be donated.

The report also highlights measures the state could have taken to mitigate some of the unintended consequences of the Murphy administration’s COVID-19 precautions, such as during school closures.

New Jersey was able to quickly set up food distribution plans for students as schools closed but had no plans for mitigating student learning loss, according to the report. The authors suggest the state could benefit from virtual assessment tools that monitor student performance amid remote learning and facilitate the reopening of schools if necessary.

“In hindsight, it is likely that New Jersey students would have benefited from schools opening sooner,” the authors wrote.

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