NJ healthcare, prison workers get extension for COVID booster
TRENTON – Workers in hospitals, nursing homes and prisons in New Jersey are getting extra time to comply with the state’s COVID-19 vaccine booster mandate.
Gov. Phil Murphy signed an executive order Wednesday that updates the deadline for workers at healthcare facilities and congregate settings to get fully up-to-date on their COVD vaccines. A worker who is not and hasn’t gotten an exemption can lose their job.
The change in particular helps healthcare facilities and workers, as their booster deadline passed on Monday. Workers in healthcare facilities now must get their COVID booster dose by April 11 or within three weeks of becoming eligible, whichever is later.
“We greatly appreciate the governor’s flexibility in giving New Jersey healthcare workers additional opportunities to comply with the state’s booster shot requirement, and for sticking with the science that has guided New Jersey’s response throughout this pandemic,” said Cathy Bennett, president and chief executive officer of the New Jersey Hospital Association.
“Our healthcare facilities continue to work closely with their team members to answer concerns, dispel misinformation and increase booster shot acceptance,” Bennett said. “The new executive order from the governor will help us meet our shared goal of vaccinating our healthcare workforce.”
Close to 39% of workers at long-term care facilities haven’t gotten COVID boosters, including 9% who are entirely unvaccinated.
Workers in high-risk congregate settings, which include the prisons, now must be vaccinated and boosted by May 11. Those who become newly eligible for a booster shot after May 11 will have to submit proof that they got the jab within three weeks of becoming eligible.
New CDC guidance cited
Murphy had insisted as recently as Monday that the deadlines would not be moved. He said the timeframes are being adjusted because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now suggests eight weeks between mRNA COVID vaccine doses, rather than three or four weeks.
The CDC said the extended interval may in particular help males ages 12 to 39 lower their risk of myocarditis, or heart inflammation.
“Over the course of our COVID-19 response, we have always followed the science in decision-making, and this is no different,” Murphy said. “This executive order ensures that our COVID-19 vaccination requirements for covered workers in medical and high-risk congregate settings are able to properly keep themselves and those whom they care for safe.”
Under an executive order Murphy issued in January, healthcare workers had to get first COVID vaccine doses by Jan. 27 and be up-to-date, including a booster, by Feb. 28, while prison guards and others in high-risk congregate settings had until Feb. 16 to get first doses and until March 30 to get boosters.
Little change for prison guards
William Sullivan, president of PBA Local 105, said the order is of limited help to correctional workers.
“It really does nothing for us because you still have to have your first shot by Feb. 16,” Sullivan said. “We’re still in the same boat.”
“It’ll make some people happy they don’t have to get the booster right away, but for the most part we’re still stuck at the same juncture we were at the beginning of this mandate,” he said.
The executive order also requires employers to take the first step toward disciplining noncompliant workers within two weeks of the April 11 and May 11 deadlines. If they don’t, the facilities could face penalties or other corrective action.
Terminations have begun
Sullivan said the Juvenile Justice Commission started terminating officers Tuesday for not complying with the vaccine mandate. He said 80 officers got warning notices and that most complied at the last minute after their exemption requests were denied but that around 10 are losing their jobs.
Sullivan said the Department of Corrections hasn’t issued decisions on the more than 1,700 exemption requests it received – 1,602 for religious exemptions and 101 for medical exemptions.
Sullivan said the most recent data showed 58% of custody officers at the prisons had gotten first vaccine doses, or 3,104 of 5,365.
That’s higher than the 43% vaccination rate for all Department of Corrections employees, including civilians, reported by the state in mid-February. Sullivan said it probably includes many people who had delayed turning in their proof of vaccination and not necessarily that all of them recently got the shot.
Calls to repeal, not revise
Sen. Michael Testa, R-Cumberland, said he thinks Murphy is realizing it wouldn’t be smart to fire potentially so many correctional officers, who he said have been on the front lines of the pandemic for two years and may have natural immunity from exposure to the virus.
“Thank God right now we’re at the endemic stage of COVID-19, and we’re trying to put the COVID era in the rearview mirror. I think he should repeal his vaccine mandates entirely at this point,” Testa said.
“Putting their livelihoods at risk at this point in time and their pensions at risk, I just think it’s completely shortsighted and shows that he’s really attempting to be an authoritarian and not really the democratically elected governor of New Jersey,” Testa said.