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Report: New Jersey ill-prepared for COVID-19 pandemic

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(The Center Square) — New Jersey Republicans are seizing on a new independent report detailing Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, saying it backs up their claims that he mismanaged the crisis.

The 907-page report, which was overseen by Paul Zoubek, a Republican former assistant state attorney general, examined New Jersey’s preparedness for COVID-19, gauged the state’s overall handling of the pandemic response, and recommended steps the state can take to prepare for future public health emergencies.

Overall, the report concluded that New Jersey — like much of the rest of the nation — was ill-prepared to deal with the deadly virus outbreak when it first surfaced in early 2020 and said the state needs to do more to prepare for the next public health emergency.

“We collectively failed as a nation and as a state to be adequately prepared,” Zoubek wrote in a report summary. “At the state level, heroic actions were taken to respond in good faith to the crisis. Despite the lessons of the last four years, New Jersey remains underprepared for the next emergency.”

Murphy signed an executive order in 2022 commissioning the study, making good on a pledge Murphy made in the early days of the pandemic when he vowed to conduct an independent review of his handling of the state’s response.

In a response to the report, Murphy issued a statement pointing out that the pandemic — which claimed more than 33,000 lives in New Jersey — was “the greatest crisis our state has ever faced.”

“The report both highlights numerous examples of New Jersey’s strong leadership during the crisis, and identifies gaps in preparedness and structural deficiencies that must be addressed,” Murphy said. “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.”

New Jersey enacted some of the most stringent COVID-19 precautions in the nation during the height of the pandemic in 2020, closing businesses and schools while requiring social distancing and masking in public.

The state was criticized for its handling of COVID-19 outbreaks in long-term care facilities, such as nursing and congregate homes, where the fatality rate was high. It led to criticism that the state was unprepared to support the assisted living facilities and too slow to respond.

At one point, New Jersey requested emergency aid from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the National Guard to provide care and administer COVID-19 vaccines.

A 2020 study by a consulting firm hired by the Murphy administration found many long-term care facilities in New Jersey were ill-equipped to deal with the public health emergency. The report called for tougher state scrutiny but stopped short of blaming the Murphy administration.

Republicans, who were highly critical of Murphy’s handling of the COVID-19 outbreak, said the report backs up their claims that his administration bungled the response.

“Governor Murphy spent $9 million on a report that told us what we already knew — he failed to protect those who were willing to give their lives to protect our country,” state Sen. Kristin Corrado, R-Totowa, said in a statement. “The Murphy Administration’s incompetency caused deaths in our State’s Veterans nursing homes, deaths which the leadership of these homes tried to cover up.”

Sen. Joe Pennacchio, R-Montville, called the report’s conclusions “concerning” and said it “confirms that New Jersey is not adequately prepared to address future pandemic.”

“This report is once again a reminder of the abdication of responsibilities by the Legislature to find the truth during these last four years,” Pennacchio said in a statement.

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