In an age where everything is upside down, when nothing in New Jersey seems to work the way it’s supposed to, you probably think you’ve heard it all.
In which case, try this tale of government dysfunction on for size.
Susan Di Salvatore, 69, and Anthony Di Salvatore, 73, both have cancer. They’ve been locked in their Williamstown home for nearly a year, away from their three grandkids and two sons. In early January, they started trying to find COVID vaccines, logging onto their computers first thing each morning, searching some of the 200 websites and portals available in New Jersey and then clicking and refreshing, clicking and refreshing.
Five hours would pass. Click and refresh.
Nothing. Every day.
Then, a breakthrough. Atlantic City Convention Center was taking appointments at 3 p.m. Jan. 26, so Susan logged on at 2:45 p.m. She was No. 6,230 in line. She waited patiently, making it to No. 3,200. Halfway home!
Then she got kicked off the booking site.
She logged on again the next day. She miraculously found an appointment at the Gloucester County megasite for the very next morning. The Di Salvatores showed up for the vaccine, only to learn — surprise! — there had been another error and they were turned away. A glitch in the scheduling system double-booked appointments.
When the couple finally navigated the matrix on Feb. 2 and successfully booked an appointment, the result was a final punch to the solar plexus.
The date for their first vaccination shot? March 25.
“I can’t even tell you how devastating it’s been,” said Susan Di Salvatore, in early February. “When you have cancer, you feel scared all the time. But trying to get an appointment and getting shot down time and again, it just makes everything worse.”
Di Salvatore kept on searching, and did finally secure an earlier appointment in mid-February at a CVS — but her opinion of the experience and the state’s handling of the matter hasn’t changed. “It stinks,” she said late last month.
By any reasonable standard, New Jersey’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout has been a disappointment. On Jan. 15, the state ranked 36th of the 50 states in vaccinations per 100,000 residents, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. New Jersey’s ranking has since risen to 19th, but stories of confusion and exasperation have been legion.
And a bungled initial vaccine rollout is hardly the only misstep some of the state’s 9 million residents say they’ve endured in the year since the coronavirus pandemic arrived in New Jersey; if anything, the rollout was just the most recent dreary twist in a year of errors and delays, deflection and blame-shifting. From unemployment insurance distribution to the reopening of Motor Vehicle Commission sites, from the tragedies that have befallen the state’s prisons and nursing homes to the scattered, stop-and-start approach to school reopenings, it’s become increasingly difficult for many residents to avoid the feeling that New Jersey has come up short.
- Gov. Phil Murphy’s initial handling of the crisis remains widely praised by experts. Still, New Jersey has the highest COVID-19 death rate of any state in the nation per 100,000 residents, according to federal data. New Jersey’s 23,449 deaths as of Thursday are sixth-most of any state, and more than all of Canada, Romania and Ecuador. The state also has the second highest COVID-19 mortality rates per 100,000 among Black residents and fourth for Latino residents when adjusted for age, according to American Public Media data.
- New Jersey has the highest rate of COVID-19 deaths among nursing homes per 1,000 residents in the country, federal data shows. In 2020, nearly one in seven New Jersey nursing home residents died of COVID-19.
- New Jersey’s state-run prison system is tied for the sixth-highest death rate per 10,000 prisoners of any state in the nation, according to the Marshall Project.
- The state’s unemployment insurance system was nearly crippled by the unprecedented number of claims. An NJ Advance Media investigation last May found that officials through multiple administrations knew for years that the system was under stress and did little to fix it. (The Labor Department said 96% of the eligible unemployment claims filed since the pandemic have been paid.)
- After a four-month closure, the reopening of the state’s Motor Vehicle Commission offices became a nightmare of long lines, fistfights and sheer bedlam as residents flooded the agencies. The agency also has been marred by repeated closures in recent months.
- Nearly 40,000 students began the year without either laptops or internet access needed for online school, severely limiting their ability to learn. Parental frustration over prolonged closings has boiled over, and other than channeling federal relief money, the state has done little to help several districts that already have announced they won’t reopen until April or May.
Critics say the gaffes by the state government began snowballing midway through 2020, thwarting an admirable initial response from Murphy, who saw his approval rating soar to 71% in an April poll from Monmouth University. In the early days of the pandemic, the freshman governor portrayed a sense of calm and competency during televised daily news briefings, providing a steady hand for the state’s anxious residents.
Murphy held his 170th briefing Wednesday, marking the one-year anniversary of the state’s first confirmed COVID-19 case.
“Through it all, our fight has been about one thing and one thing only, and that is to save every life we possibly can,” Murphy said. “No member of our New Jersey family is disposable.”
Indeed, Murphy earned praise for acting decisively with masking, social distancing and business and restaurant closure and capacity requirements, implementing strict policy in the face of pushback from COVID deniers. The decisions likely saved countless lives, public health experts said. He also deftly managed former President Donald Trump’s mercurial temperament to secure desperately needed federal aid for the state.
Since then, Murphy’s approval ratings have dropped slightly to 62% as of November — notably higher than governors in other hard-hit blue states, such as California’s Gavin Newsom and New York’s Andrew Cuomo, both of whose ratings hovered around 50% in mid-February surveys. Meanwhile, state and federal investigations have commenced, looking into deaths in long-term care facilities, and Senate Republicans launched independent hearings Friday to probe Murphy’s “flawed COVID-19 response.”
Ryan Santero, a 45-year-old audio engineer from Barnegat, said he considered selling possessions to buy food while waiting weeks for his unemployment extension to arrive. Courtesy of Ryan Santero
And for many frustrated residents and voters, as well as some politicians, there’s an increasing sense that Murphy’s once-steady grip on the pandemic has come unloosed.
“In 2020, he got an A. In 2021, he’s getting an F-minus,” said Ryan Santero, a 45-year-old audio engineer from Barnegat who’s been out of work since last year and spent weeks waiting for unemployment extension benefits. “If I was governor, I’d be cracking skulls and taking names. Get this stuff done. Do your job.”
“I just figured he might be able to do better,” added William Haller, 63, a Martinsville resident and Murphy voter who said he’s losing faith after seeing Murphy hold photo ops at vaccine sites while the rollout was going badly.
“He takes a great picture with that toothy grin,” Haller said. “But when it comes down to doing things, he just doesn’t seem to be getting anything done. It just seems like it’s too much for him at this point.”
Alyana Alfaro Post, Murphy’s press secretary, said New Jersey was uniquely challenged as one of the first states leveled by the COVID-19 outbreak, before “proven infection-control measures or established treatment protocols” were widely known.
She also highlighted six ways the Murphy-led pandemic response has been successful, including reducing cases heading into the summer while other parts of the nation had surges; decreasing the digital divide for hundreds of thousands of students; building a jobs portal within weeks of the state shutting down to post thousands of jobs for unemployed residents; and constantly keeping the state updated by holding 170 COVID-19 news briefings.
“As the governor has emphasized before, New Jersey will learn from this pandemic and emerge as a national model for solving immediate problems and building future resilience,” Alfaro Post said.
Despite those highlights, there has seemed to be little in the way of accountability for areas where the state has struggled, some critics say. The governor has not made any significant changes or firings among the state’s senior leadership and pandemic response team, and he’s remained stubbornly loyal to his inner circle, even to the state’s detriment, some critics say. Most recently, Murphy has refused to fire embattled Department of Corrections Commissioner Marcus Hicks, who oversees a prison system with one of the highest COVID-19 death rates in the country and has been under fire after corrections officers were accused of beating and sexually assaulting female inmates at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility in January.
Murphy has said there will be a full accounting of the state’s response at some point when the pandemic is under control. Meanwhile, his defenders and supporters are quick to point out there was no blueprint for how to handle the pandemic, a calamity unlike anything New Jersey has seen.
“I wouldn’t have wanted to be thrust into it,” said Sen. Richard Codey, D-Essex, a former governor. “There was no map for it, no playbook whatsoever. Every other disaster he had one for, but not this.”
People wait in line in January for the COVID-19 vaccine in Paterson. The first few arrived around 2:30 a.m. for the chance to be vaccinated at one of the few sites that does not require an appointment. Associated Press
Public health experts said the administration, by and large, has done well responding to the pandemic. They also cautioned against comparing New Jersey’s worst stats to other states. New Jersey is the most densely populated state in the country, and it was hit by the first wave of the virus at a time when so little was understood about the disease, the experts said. The data — especially relating to deaths — also could be skewed by what different states choose to report, they added.
“For a respiratory disease, density really matters,” said Ning Zhang, a health services and policy researcher and professor for Seton Hall-Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine. “We’re also a domestic and international hub of transportation.”
Not surprisingly, Murphy’s political opponents don’t agree. His likely Republican challenger in the gubernatorial race, former Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli, has blasted the governor’s pandemic response, saying it’s clear Murphy and his administration are “in over their head.”
“From the very beginning their policies have failed New Jersey,” Ciattarelli said. “Their decisions caused deaths in our nursing homes … (and) closed businesses throughout New Jersey. Their policies have kept children out of school. And now their decisions have turned the vaccine rollout into a disaster.”
Perhaps more notably, though, even members of Murphy’s own party have been critical. State Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg and Senate President Stephen Sweeney questioned the decision to place patients infected with COVID-19 back into nursing homes last year. And Weinberg added there’s “always this very defensive feeling” when it comes to the Murphy administration.
“Honesty and directness is the best way to approach the public,” Weinberg said. “There could be a little less defensiveness and a little more, ‘Hey, maybe that’s a good idea.’”
That’s cold comfort for many residents, though, where the public perception has often been that there’s nobody available in state government to help them.
“Whether it’s the MVC, the welfare hotline or the COVID vaccine, if people are not answering the phone, if all the mailboxes are full, at what point are you going to realize that this is a crucial part of the system?” said Sabrina Hunte, an East Orange resident who had trouble changing her expiring probationary driver’s license online. “People literally just want information. Like, you need to try and remedy that.”
And with the grim anniversary of New Jersey’s first confirmed case of COVID now a few days behind us, the frustration shows little sign of evaporating.
Just ask Ryan Santero. His wife, a paraprofessional teaching in-person classes, can’t find a vaccine appointment anywhere. Their 12-year-old son’s school has gone back and forth from in-person to remote learning due to the school’s COVID exposures, throwing their schedules into chaos. While waiting for the federal extension benefits to come in, Santero said, he considered selling musical instruments or the coin collection he hoped to pass down to his son because he could barely afford food.
“We’re going on a year now,” Santero said. “Get your act together.”
Florence Holmes claps after being injected with her second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine Feb. 10 by nurse Natanel Yakobov at the Mary McLeod Bethune Life Center in Jersey City. Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop, left, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, center, and Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli also applaud. Reena Rose Sibayan | The Jersey Journal
‘A human tragedy’
They told New Jerseyans to remain calm.
On March 4, 2020, the day the state announced its first COVID-19 infection, Murphy’s administration assured residents that state leaders had been preparing for weeks.
“Any case of novel coronavirus in our state is concerning,” Department of Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli said at the time. “However, most New Jersey residents are at very low risk of contracting COVID-19.”
Thirteen days later, the state’s top health official offered a sobering reversal.
“I’m definitely going to get it,” Persichilli said in an interview with NJ Advance Media. “We all are.”
New Jersey, with its dense population and proximity to an international travel hub like New York City, was in many ways susceptible to the virus. But the state, with a renowned hospital system ranked eighth best nationally in the fall by the 2019 Leapfrog Hospital Safety report card, seemed better equipped than most to handle COVID. In fact, New Jersey was considered one of the best prepared states in the nation to handle a public health crisis like an outbreak, according to a 2020 study by Trust for America’s Health, which cited patient safety scores and having a plan for a laboratory surge as positives for the state.
The study did not prove prescient. Scores of residents complained about not knowing where or how to get tested for COVID-19, and state-run testing sites were quickly overwhelmed.
Residents from St. Joseph’s Senior Home are helped onto buses in Woodbridge in the early days of the pandemic. All 94 nursing home residents were being moved by Morris County officials. Associated Press
Behind the scenes, Murphy’s administration prioritized support such as deliveries of protective masks and other equipment for hospitals expecting a surge of patients. Long-term care facilities were left out of the equation, a member of the state pandemic task force disclosed to NJ Advance Media in April and May. Soon, deaths and infections piled up in those facilities at a horrifying rate.
The state didn’t begin on-site nursing home inspections until April 16, only after reports that 17 bodies had been stacked and stored in a makeshift morgue at Andover Subacute and Rehabilitation Center I and II in Sussex County, drawing national headlines and scrutiny.
Other states prioritized long-term care residents earlier, recognizing the risk to elderly people in congregate living, said Corey Basch, a professor of public health and the department chair at William Paterson University.
Officials in Washington state, for instance, tapped federal aid to provide hazard pay, equipment and additional staffing, according to reports. Washington kept its death rate lower than New York and New Jersey, despite having been hit by the virus several weeks earlier.
“Eventually, we did direct fiscal resources in this direction, but it was a matter of what your priority was in those very early days,” Basch said.
State Senate President Stephen Sweeney and George E. Norcross III in 2018. Al Amrhein | For NJ Advance Media
In May, Sweeney, the state’s top Democratic lawmaker, called the state’s nursing home deaths “a human tragedy that becomes even more disturbing as we learn about the apparent failure to respond quickly or to take preventive steps.”
Alfaro Post called the spread of COVID-19 in long-term care facilities “one of the greatest challenges New Jersey has faced in this pandemic.”
She said the state “followed CDC guidance and took various actions to protect residents of our nursing homes,” and noted a partnership with Manatt Health, which conducted a rapid review of New Jersey’s long-term care facilities to address systemic challenges, mitigate the impact of COVID-19 and reduce impacts of future outbreaks.
“The report gave guidance for new residents and visitors after the current COVID outbreak and addresses mitigation, protection, and resiliency against future outbreaks, both in the near- and long-term,” Alfaro Post said.
Meanwhile, state prisons largely took a business-as-usual approach, continuing to transport inmates between facilities and not allowing inmates to wear masks until five weeks after Murphy declared a state of emergency.
Murphy signed an executive order last April authorizing the Department of Corrections to release up to 3,000 non-violent inmates close to completing their sentences. Only a fraction were released, and legislators passed a bill in September to let out more than 2,000 prisoners.
At least 42 inmates and at least three people who worked in state prisons died from the coronavirus by May, the highest death rate in the country at the time.
Amid the exploding crisis Murphy followed public health guidance and effectively shut down the state by closing retail businesses and restaurants on March 21, creating a ripple effect that touched nearly every aspect of life. But the potential reach of those ripple effects didn’t always seem to be fully thought out by the governor.
NJ Transit runs, for instance, were dramatically reduced, but remaining buses and trains for essential workers were initially overcrowded and some complained they were forced to choose between social distancing or getting to work. The head of a union representing NJ Transit conductors quit the agency’s coronavirus task force in April 2020, claiming it had lied about safety procedures and masks and gloves being provided to employees. At least 16 NJ Transit workers, including seven bus drivers, died from COVID by the end of 2020.
Then there was unemployment. With thousands of businesses shuttered and people out of work, more than 2 million claims for unemployment benefits were filed. The state’s obsolete online system — which needed to be replaced more than a decade ago, according to a 2003 analysis by the Department of Labor — crashed repeatedly in the early days of the pandemic. The governor has proposed budgeting $7.75 million for modernizing the IT systems in the next fiscal year, but the labor commissioner has said he needs $200 million to really update the unemployment system.
Labor Department spokeswoman Angela Delli-Santi said the unemployment system “performed as well as more modern systems of other states,” adding that New Jersey “remains a national leader in percentage of applicants receiving benefits, as compared with other states.”
Nonetheless, a kind of blueprint was set for what followed, with the state getting leveled by problems that presumably it could and should have seen coming.
The line to get service at the N.J. Motor Vehicle Commission in Rahway wraps around the building in October. Steve Hockstein | For NJ Advance Media
Consider the Murphy administration’s choice to reopen Motor Vehicle Commission offices without appointments, creating massive crowds and lines that made social distancing impossible. Thirty-nine other states reopened sites with appointments to avoid lines and crowding, but New Jersey officials resisted the idea until November.
It took seven months before the MVC said it had cleared the backlog caused by the earlier closures. And even with the appointment system, slots for things like registering a privately purchased vehicle disappeared so quickly that the commission advised people to check for available appointments between midnight and 5 a.m. Numerous agencies had to be closed after employees tested positive, forcing the MVC to cancel appointments.
Alfaro Post pointed to New Jersey’s dense population as a challenge, saying that “no other state serves as many motor vehicle customers per location as New Jersey.” She added that the MVC has moved millions of transactions out of the agencies and online.
“Other states still report significant delays processing motor vehicle transactions and testing drivers, with some states expecting the backlog and service delays to drag out for many more months, if not years,” Alfaro Post said. “That is not the case in New Jersey.”
The governor initially said he’d require all schools to reopen in the fall, but later backed down, saying schools could remain virtual if they had legitimate reasons, which has left desperate parents to hold rallies and petition schools to reopen their doors.
Finally, in December, a pair of COVID-19 vaccines received emergency FDA approval and there appeared to be light at the end of the tunnel. But months later, scores of vulnerable residents still complain about navigating the state’s appointment system.
In some other circumstances where things go wrong, a head usually rolls or there’s a shakeup among staff. But that hasn’t happened in New Jersey. Murphy has made no changes of note to his inner circle or coronavirus response team, including keeping his chiefs at the departments of Health and Labor and the Motor Vehicle Commission. Only the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs has seen new leadership after its chief resigned in October.
When asked about the lack of personnel changes, Alfaro Post said, “The state’s pandemic response has been rapidly evolving and takes into account all available data and information.”
Gov. Phil Murphy poses with Elmore DeQuincy, of Englewood, who was vaccinated in January against COVID-19 at the Bergen County Meadowlands Vaccination Megasite. Michael Mancuso | NJ Advance Media
‘We never got a response’
So what exactly went wrong in the management of all this, and could it have been avoided? Critics say the problems were likely baked in from the start.
Even before the pandemic, Murphy was facing a smaller crisis from a surprising place: his own party in the state Legislature. The former Goldman Sachs executive, who assumed office in 2018, spent much of his first two years in Trenton sparring over proposed budget and tax increases with Sweeney, the most powerful Democrat in the state. The rancor only intensified after Murphy appointed a task force to dig into the use of tax incentives by South Jersey Democratic powerbroker George Norcross, a childhood friend of Sweeney’s.
At the same time, Murphy had a hard time moving his key agenda items through the Democratic-controlled Legislature. One of his chief proposals, a new tax on millionaires, was rejected twice. The legalization of marijuana was only enacted last month, after a protracted, stop-and-start process that ultimately had to be decided by ballot initiative.
Once the pandemic hit, Murphy’s initial legislative losses and feud with Sweeney faded into the background. But to some lawmakers, the extraordinary public health crisis accentuated Murphy’s biggest flaws as governor — his inability to communicate and get along with other top members of the Legislature.
“When you have a crisis like this, you have to be a good manager,” said Jon Bramnick, the Republican Assembly minority leader. “In my judgment, I didn’t see that kind of skill or that kind of management.”
Even Democratic lawmakers have criticized Murphy’s transparency and willingness to communicate with other leaders throughout the pandemic.
Weinberg, the Senate majority leader, said Murphy did a good job communicating to the public, but that “there could be more communications directly with the Legislature, directly with groups that don’t always agree with what the outcome could be.”
State Sen. Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, photographed just before the coronavirus emerged in New Jersey, said “there could be more communications directly with the Legislature” from Gov. Phil Murphy’s office. Larry Higgs | NJ Advance Media
Before the pandemic, a Monmouth University poll from September 2019 put Murphy’s approval rating at 41%, while 21% of people didn’t even hold an opinion of him.
Yet the new public platform afforded Murphy by the COVID-19 crisis helped residents to finally get acquainted with his folksy demeanor and even-handedness.
“There was a sense of calm and consistency and competency that was in stark contrast to what we were seeing at the federal level,” said Matthew Hale, an associate professor and chair for the department of political science and public affairs at Seton Hall University. “People looked at him and they said, ‘This guy knows what he’s doing and he’s taking care of us.’”
In turn, Murphy’s approval ratings rocketed. Some lawmakers from both sides of the aisle agreed that public popularity may have further emboldened Murphy to govern how he saw fit — namely even more insulated and closed off than usual, critics say.
The state Legislature has not held special public hearings regarding how the pandemic was handled, shielding Murphy from both criticism and feedback from lawmakers and constituents, critics said. And some lawmakers, especially Republicans, say they’ve received minimal communication from Murphy’s office throughout the pandemic.
For instance, Sen. Anthony Bucco, R-Morris, said he contacted officials from the Murphy administration in May to warn them of a potential impending disaster when MVC offices reopened. Bucco said even in normal times the MVC office in his district has long lines, and he foresaw chaos after they had been closed for months.
“We never got a response,” Bucco said. “It was both an initial letter and my email were ignored. It was just crazy.”
Assemblyman Anthony M. Bucco, left, talks to his father, Sen. Anthony R. Bucco in 2017. Aristide Economopoulos | NJ Advance Media
Alfaro Post said communication with the Legislature has not been an issue.
“The governor’s office has regularly communicated with our legislative partners throughout the pandemic,” she said. “We are on the phone daily with members of the Legislature, regularly brief leadership … and solicit their feedback.”
What’s more, New Jersey endows its governors with the most executive power in the nation. Lawmakers admit Murphy rightfully used those powers to make swift decisions at the onset of the pandemic. But some claim he should have stopped months ago and opted to rule with more input from lawmakers.
“The criticism I would make is he’s got to talk to as many people as possible to see if they have any ideas, to make them part of the process and hear them out,” Codey said. “It should have happened someday down the road after it started. But that’s generally not his style.”
State Democrats have stood up to Murphy several times in the past, including accusing senior administration officials of misleading lawmakers and mishandling former campaign volunteer Katie Brennan’s rape allegation against a top aide during Murphy’s 2017 campaign.
But given that 2021 is an election year and all 120 seats in the Legislature are up for grabs, Democrats are reluctant to be seen as promulgating infighting or risk drawing the ire of Murphy, who has the political power to swing a race with an endorsement or dictate which Democratic campaign funds go to which candidates, experts say.
As for Sweeney, he gave Murphy a “B” grade for his pandemic response so far.
“It’s easy to criticize,” Sweeney said in late February. “It’s not that easy to govern.”
The election cycle has helped shield Murphy from bipartisan criticism, leaving Republicans mostly on an island touting the governor’s alleged failings. In fact, no Democrats are expected to join the panel of seven Republicans who began hearings Friday to probe the Murphy administration’s pandemic response.
Some of those Republicans point to state-by-state data, mortality rates and complaints from residents on several factors as evidence of the state’s subpar response to the pandemic. Hale said some of those issues, although awful, are not likely to move average voters as Murphy closes in on his re-election bid.
“The difference is that nursing home deaths and prison deaths don’t affect most people in the state,” Hale said.
But, Hale cautioned, the vaccine rollout could be Murphy’s final proving ground for voters — for good or bad. After a rough start, the state appears to be doing better, public health experts said, and recently surpassed 2 million vaccine doses. Murphy will need to keep up the positive momentum to impress voters, experts said.
“A blundering vaccine distribution affects everyone in the state,” Hale said. “So, if he blows the vaccine distribution, if he’s not fixed it, that really could be the Achilles heel.”
Gov. Phil Murphy speaks at a press conference in January 2020 on the state’s level of preparedness regarding the pandemic. Spencer Kent | NJ Advance Media
‘A messaging problem’
None of these problems have been necessarily unique to New Jersey: New York’s handling of deaths in nursing homes, for instance, is now under intense scrutiny; the vaccine rollout in Pennsylvania has been plagued with high-profile missteps, including more than 100,000 people who were given the second dose of the vaccine as their first dose.
For his part, Murphy has tried to stress to anyone listening that the state is in uncharted territory. Throughout the pandemic, he has repeatedly said the state is doing the best it can in the face of the most challenging and dire public health crisis in more than a century.
“Remember, we are building the airplane here as we’re flying it,” Murphy said Jan. 27 when asked about the state’s vaccination rollout. “It may be the most complex logistical undertaking — other than going to war — in the history of the United States.”
But the figuring-it-out-as-we-go defense doesn’t hold up as well when it comes to the vaccine scheduling system, experts said. New Jersey, like every other state, had roughly three or four months to plan for arrival of the vaccines, and what would be required to get them distributed, before the first doses were given Dec. 15.
Murphy said at a news briefing Sept. 8 that he expected doses around the end of the year, based on conversations with pharmaceutical companies and health experts.
Fast-forward to January and February and the scene on the ground was chaotic.
The federal government did not provide anything close to the number of doses the state needed, but that wasn’t the only obstacle. There are roughly 300 vaccination sites, 100 phone numbers to call and 85 websites to check and recheck if residents want a chance at finding a site with any open appointments. They can disappear in minutes or seconds when available.
The state also hired Microsoft to build a central scheduling system, but most sites have opted not to use it for reasons including that it didn’t interface with their electronic records systems. State officials admitted the system, including the call center, has been buggy, sometimes going down for days at a time or double-booking appointments.
“The system itself has had issues, and we are directly speaking with Microsoft, who’s the vendor, almost every day to work out those bugs,” Persichilli said Feb. 10.
Gov. Phil Murphy holds a media briefing at Bergen Community College’s Moses Center in March 2020 with State Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli after the opening of New Jersey’s first COVID-19 community-based testing site at the college. Michael Mancuso | NJ Advance Media
“There is shared blame between the state and the federal government for this. You can’t really separate the two,” Stephanie Silvera, an epidemiologist and public health professor at Montclair State University, said of the vaccine rollout.
“I think that there’s been a messaging problem. When the state opened up the preregistration system for the vaccine, I think a lot of people thought, ‘OK, I’ve preregistered, when appointments are available, I’ll get my email, it’ll tell me when and where to go.’ As it turns out, that system tells you when you’re eligible, and then you’re entering the Hunger Games of vaccine acquisition.”
By comparison, West Virginia has earned widespread praise for its quick and efficient handling of the vaccine rollout; it was one of the first states where residents and staff of the state’s 214 long-term care facilities were offered the full regime. West Virginia’s success has been credited to creating a centralized state-run vaccine distribution system, while also using the National Guard for help with logistics.
Another standout, New Mexico, has a single, centralized vaccine sign-up system. It has gotten first shots to 23% of its population, compared to 18% in New Jersey, according to CDC data compiled by the New York Times. After Alaska, New Mexico and West Virginia have the highest percentage of residents fully vaccinated at 13% and 12%, compared to 9% in New Jersey.
When even public health experts criticized the vaccine rollout, Murphy deflected blame. Asked by a reporter Feb. 3 whether he took any responsibility for the pace of the rollout, Murphy said, “this isn’t a blame game” and then listed problems with the federal government supply, pharmacies and Microsoft. On Jan. 9 he said, “within the context of a large supply-demand imbalance, I like everything we’re doing inside of the state to get prepared.”
When the Department of Health missed a deadline for joining the federal pharmacy vaccination program, delaying the rollout in nursing homes by a week and sparking calls for accountability, Murphy rejected the criticism as “people who don’t know what they’re talking about from the cheap seats.”
Cars line up at the Union County COVID-19 Drive-Through Test Center at Kean University in Union in November. Ed Murray | NJ Advance Media
Meanwhile, other problems the state has been working on for months persist.
Students at seven of the 10 largest public school districts in the state remain remote. (The figure was nine out of 10 until Edison and Woodbridge went hybrid March 1.) Advocates worry that each day children are learning remotely will put them further behind, but many educators and some parents are still reluctant to see kids back in classrooms given the risk of spreading the virus.
At the MVC, some people are still lining up at dawn trying for walk-in appointments — which the MVC said they should not do — and especially those who must renew licenses in person may still need to check the website after midnight to try to snap up an appointment. MVC officials said they have added more license renewal appointments and will continue to do so.
While most of the 75,000 people waiting on the 11-week federal unemployment benefit extension finally received it by mid-February, the Labor Department said a “small subset” did not. Some told NJ Advance Media they were informed it could take up to eight weeks to settle their claims.
Benjamin Dworkin, director of the Rowan Institute for Public Policy & Citizenship, said Murphy should feel confident running for re-election on his pandemic-response record. He thinks voters will be more forgiving with Murphy in the pandemic, but it’s also not clear how long that positivity will last.
“It works until it doesn’t work, and no one knows when. We’re willing to give you some slack, and then at a certain point, there’s less slack,” Dworkin said. “And it’s not a clear line — three months, six months, 10 months — when that will be.”
And for some residents it’s hard to feel much positivity at all when the last few months have felt akin to finally escaping the fryer only to be tossed directly into a new frying pan. Consider the tale of Denise Warren-Yarnall, of Maple Shade, one of those 75,000 New Jerseyans whose unemployment benefits ran out in December. She spent more than six weeks living off dwindling savings. At one point she was so stressed that she wondered, in the event of her death, if she would even have enough money to bury herself.
Warren-Yarnall said her extension benefits finally came in mid-February after she spent weeks trying to get someone on the phone about them.
But no rest for the weary. These days, the 64-year-old is focusing her time and energy on trying to get a vaccination appointment.
“It feels the same. And it’s just crazy,” she said. “New Jersey seems to have a big problem with getting things done.”
NJ Advance Media staff writer Brent Johnson contributed to this report.
Our journalism needs your support. Please subscribe today to NJ.com.