Jersey leads the world - in COVID deaths: Time for a probe into where Murphy went wrong

If New Jersey were a country, its death rate of 249 deaths per 100,000 residents would rank it ahead of every nation on Earth.


Neera Tanden is the head of the Center for American Progress, which the Washington Post termed “Washington’s leading liberal think tank.”

In one of the first nominations Joe Biden made as president-elect, he selected Tanden to head the Office of Management and Budget, a plum post indeed.

In a classic bit of irony, however, Tanden turned out to have the same addiction to tweeting that did in Donald Trump.

After Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia said that Tanden’s tweets “will have a toxic and detrimental impact” on relations between Congress and the OMB, Biden withdrew the nomination.

That’s a fun political squabble. But what does it have to do with New Jersey politics?

Declan O’Scanlon would like to know. O’Scanlon is the Republican state senator from Monmouth County who represents the district in which Gov. Phil Murphy lives.

Back in April of last year Murphy named Tanden to a Restart and Recovery Commission. But Tanden, who grew up in Massachusetts and became a Beltway insider, should not have been named to a group advising on policy for New Jersey, O’Scanlon said.

“There are Democrats and Republicans in business who were clamoring for competent people to guide our reopening,” O’Scanlon said. “Why would you complicate the reopening by putting someone who’s blatantly political into the mix?”

Tanden resigned from the commission when she was nominated to head OMB. But judging by the remaining members, the panel could be mistaken for a political campaign committee. It’s packed with activists while it lacks a single representative of the small businesses that were so adversely affected by Murphy’s many executive orders.

If those orders had spared New Jersey from the full impact of the virus, then they might have been justified. But New Jersey leads the nation in COVID-19 deaths per capita. It leads the world. If New Jersey were a country, its death rate of 249 deaths per 100,000 residents would rank it ahead of every nation on Earth.

O’Scanlon said a legislative inquiry into Murphy’s handling of the crisis is long overdue. He recalled that the Legislature appointed a bipartisan committee with subpoena power to look into Bridgegate, a mere traffic jam.

“We should have a bipartisan committee with subpoena power to do a completely transparent, independent investigation,” O’Scanlon said.

He said the main focus of that investigation should be deaths at long-term-care facilities. Around this time last year, the Murphy administration followed the lead of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in issuing an edict banning nursing homes from refusing admission to COVID-positive patients.

But between the time Cuomo issued his order and Murphy issued his, the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report published an article on the outbreak a month earlier at a nursing home in Washington State.

The article said that the Washington case indicated “very rapid spread, despite early adoption of infection prevention and control measures.”

A couple days later the Society for Post-Acute and Long-Term Medicine issued a warning against accepting COVID patients in nursing homes, saying that doing so would “put the many frail and older adults who reside in nursing homes at risk.”

When I called the society’s executive director the other day, Christopher Laxton noted that the New Jersey order prohibited the homes from testing patients for COVID-19. That made it impossible for the homes to quarantine COVID-positive patients, he said.

“You weren’t allowed to refuse them because of their COVID status and you weren’t allowed to test them to determine the status,” Laxton said. (He also said that nursing homes have just one nurse per 15 residents compared to one per patient in intensive care units.)

He said that other states, such as Georgia, took the opposite approach and issued orders prohibiting the homes from accepting COVID-positive patients. Georgia has a death rate less than half New Jersey’s.

So I would say an investigation is in order. When I ran that by Senate President Steve Sweeney, he replied, “Right now we’ve said that when this thing is wrapped up we would take a complete and thorough look at it. But it’s not wrapped up.”

The Democrat from Gloucester County added, “If we knew then what we know now we would have done things differently. We’ll all say mistakes were made, but there was no playbook.”

Or was there? Murphy seemed to be following the playbook written by Cuomo, who was getting lots of good press initially – until he was accused of covering up nursing-home deaths.

As for an accurate count of deaths in New Jersey, the Murphy administration has been slow to respond to inquiries, O’Scanlon said.

“We don’t know what we don’t know,” he said.

The main thing we don’t know is whether Murphy was doing what best for us – or what was best for himself politically.

If that investigation ever starts its work, perhaps Tanden could be asked to come from Washington to testify on that point.

Or perhaps she could just tell us in her tweets.

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