N.J. to drop COVID test option, require vaccines for corrections, health workers

The new order requires a booster dose to be considered fully vaccinated

New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy

“We are no longer going to look past those who continue to put their colleagues and perhaps, I think even more importantly, those who are their responsibility, in danger of COVID. That has to stop,” said Gov. Phil Murphy.

NJ.com/Michael Mancuso

By Matt Arco

TRENTON, N.J. — Health care workers in New Jersey and anybody else who has a job in “high-risk congregate settings,” such as long-term care and correctional facilities, will need to be vaccinated against the coronavirus and will no longer be eligible to opt out by undergoing weekly testing, Gov. Phil Murphy announced Wednesday.

The new order comes as the latest COVID-19 wave to hit the state shows signs of waning after a new highly contagious variant of the virus resulted in tens of thousands of people testing positive for COVID-19 daily and hospitalizations approaching numbers not seen since the first wave of the pandemic.

Murphy issued an executive order that took effect in September 2021 requiring a vast amount of workers to be vaccinated. But he gave the option for people who refused the shots to regularly at least once or twice a week for the virus.

The newest order all but strips the testing option and requires people to be fully vaccinated — including being boosted according to the latest U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines — while leaving some exemptions for those with disabilities, medical conditions or “deeply held religious beliefs,” Murphy said.

“We are no longer going to look past those who continue to put their colleagues and perhaps, I think even more importantly, those who are their responsibility, in danger of COVID. That has to stop,” the Democratic governor said at a public event in Galloway on Wednesday morning. “Testing out will no longer be an option.”

The new requirement has different start dates for health care workers and employees who work in congregate settings.

“For those in our health care community who remain unvaccinated, you have until Jan. 27 to get your first vaccine dose and you must complete your primary vaccination series by Feb. 28,” Murphy said.

Murphy noted people who work at health care facilities are already required to be fully vaccinated without a test-out option under an order by President Joe Biden that was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.

People who work in other congregate settings have until Feb. 16 to get their first dose and March 30 to complete the vaccination process, Murphy said.

For those who have already completed the first course of vaccine shots, booster shots will be required by Feb. 28 for health care workers and March 30 for those in congregate settings, or within three weeks of when the worker becomes eligible for a booster.

According to the governor’s office, health care and high-risk congregate settings include:

  • Acute, pediatric, inpatient rehabilitation, and psychiatric hospitals, including specialty hospitals, and ambulatory surgical centers.
  • Long-term care facilities, including the state veterans homes.
  • Intermediate care facilities, including the state developmental centers.
  • Residential detox, short-term and long-term residential substance abuse disorder treatment facilities.
  • Clinic-based settings like ambulatory care, urgent care clinics, dialysis centers, Federally Qualified Health Centers, family planning sites, and opioid treatment programs.
  • Community-based health care settings including Program of All-inclusive Care for the Elderly, and pediatric and adult medical daycare programs.
  • Licensed home health agencies and registered health care service firms operating within the state.
  • State and county correctional facilities.
  • Secure care facilities and residential community homes operated by the Juvenile Justice Commission.
  • 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 intellectual and developmental disabilities and traumatic brain injury.
  • Group homes and psychiatric community homes licensed by the state’s Department of Children and Families.

The order applies to both full and part-time employees, contractors, and other people working in the covered setting, including individuals providing operational, custodial, or administrative support, according to the governor’s office.

Opponents to the latest order argue it could have an unintentional effect of a shortage of workers that would further harm people seeking treatment in hospitals or those who live in long-term care facilities.

“I have spoken to the operators of a number of facilities and the families of residents and they all are extremely concerned about maintaining staffing levels and the quality of care,” state Sen. Anthony Bucco, R-Morris, said in a statement.

“What’s Gov. Murphy’s plan for backfilling critical positions when nursing and veterans home workers who have concerns about the vaccine are fired? He better have an answer before he enforces another potentially disastrous order,” Bucco added.

And the state’s largest union of registered nurses and other health care workers said the order “eliminated an important tool in slowing the spread of the virus,” said Debbie White, president of Health Professionals & Allied Employees.

“Rather than eliminate testing, our healthcare facilities must conduct more testing on a routine basis of staff, patients, and visitors, so we can quickly identify COVID positive individuals and prevent others from becoming infected,” she said. “While we appreciate the need to increase vaccination rates, this does not solve the problems that exist right now.”

Murphy noted at the time of the announcement about 575,000 people in the state tested positive for the virus over the past month in what he referred to as “an omicron tsunami.” He said the number is “a dramatic undercount” given the number of people who tested positive at home with rapid tests or weren’t able to be tested given the national shortage on testing.

But there are positive signs the latest wave is fading.

As of Wednesday, the state’s seven-day average for new confirmed positive tests dropped to 13,644, down 47% from a week ago but still up 169% from a month ago, when the recent spike driven by the omicron variant was escalating. Tuesday marked the fifth straight day that average has been below 20,000 after peaking at 27,914 on Jan. 10.

Long-term care facilities, however, continue to be ravaged by outbreaks.

There were active outbreaks at 557 facilities, resulting in 9,769 current cases among residents and 12,388 cases among staff, as of the latest data Wednesday.

At least 8,867 of the state’s COVID-19 deaths have been among residents and staff members at nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, according to state data.

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