Are Murphy's NJ reopening decisions data-driven? Some health experts say they're being ignored
The abrupt decision by Gov. Phil Murphy to delay the reopening of indoor dining last month shocked more than the business owners and staffs of an industry among the hardest hit during the coronavirus pandemic.
Some of New Jersey's own health experts — data and infection control specialists on the state payroll — said they were equally caught off guard, even if they agreed with the decision.
At least three of Murphy's biggest decisions in the reopening process — the pause on indoor dining, requiring face masks outdoors and plans to reopen schools in the fall, followed by a surprise announcement that he would allow a virtual learning option — were made with little or no consultation with the public health experts, according to multiple interviews with people in the administration.
Top officials in the Health Department denied they are out of the loop, saying they advise and regularly partner with the governor's office.
But Murphy's own state health commissioner, Judith Persichilli, complained privately that she never had the governor's ear and threatened to resign at one point over personnel differences, according to telephone recordings insiders have shared with the media.
At one point, she termed the governor's team as "amateurs," a new recording listened to by the Trenton Bureau of the USA TODAY NETWORK showed.
On Monday, a health department spokeswoman said the characterization is not accurate and that Persichilli denies having said it.
"I was floored" by the indoor dining decision, said one official involved in the pandemic response who, along with two others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak freely. With less than 24 hours until Murphy was to announce his decision, that person was told by a supervisor to "generate talking points" for the governor to justify the move.
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"Shouldn't we be giving a recommendation on whether it's necessary to reopen indoor dining ourselves, on our own accord? Shouldn't the question be open-ended, and we guide the governor on both how to get the answer, and what the answer should be from a public health and safety standpoint?" the health official said. "But no — in this case I was not even given the latitude to choose which metric we were going to use to justify the decision."
New Jersey remains one of the few states in the nation, along with neighboring New York, that so far have successfully clamped down on the spread of coronavirus after suffering through a springtime fraught with anxiety, shutdowns and thousands of deaths — with more than 6,000 of those in nursing homes.
Many of the measures put in place — aggressive social distancing, mask wearing, and the continued shutdown of indoor, close-quarter places such as restaurants, bars and gyms — have been credited with the turnaround.
Deaths and hospitalizations have fallen precipitously from their peaks in April and the transmission rate has hovered around 1.0, meaning for each person who is infected, they pass the virus on to just one other person, rather than about five at the beginning of the crisis.
Now, as the state works to get businesses, schools and recreational activities up and running, questions are being raised as to what metrics and exactly which experts are driving the decisions. Murphy has not offered specifics but has said he's consulted with a wide range of experts in the state, the White House and the private sector.
Questioning the process
Murphy, a Democrat and former investment banker, is fond of saying "data determines dates" — a reference meant to ground the decisions in quantitative reasoning. However, the data provided to the public has been limited to broad benchmarks, such as hospitalizations, deaths and transmission rates.
The health department officials interviewed said their data and opinions are often not consulted until the last minute and then only as a courtesy — or justification for a decision already made.
As a result, with one of the biggest decisions yet to be made — deciding how schools should operate — some of Murphy's own health experts said they don't know whether he will hew to their advice or announce an about-face that could send millions of parents, teachers and students scrambling this fall.
“I know there are slogans out there about data being the determinant, the input into the outcome, but that should be an equation that we help you develop. We weren’t a part of that process. We don’t think there’s a process,” one of the state’s public health officials said. “It’s clear that the state’s own experts aren’t valued here.”
In past public health emergencies, like the measles outbreaks last year, the Department of Health has been relied upon for its in-house experts to guide the policies and messaging of administrations, one of the agency officials said. But that changed during the pandemic. The decisions on schools, outdoor masks and indoor dining show that shift, they said.
Murphy has said he decided to pause indoor dining because of outbreaks in other states, the easy spread of the virus indoors and too many instances of overcrowding and "a complete disregard for social distancing" in New Jersey.
Asked earlier this month about his decision to require face masks be worn outdoors, Murphy said, “We consulted a lot of health experts,” including those in the White House and on his restart and recovery panels made up of a wide range of experts in health, business and education mostly outside state government.
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The Health Department has also hired the firm McKinsey & Co., for $5.5 million, to aid its response, including "providing fact-based analysis to support the state’s decisions, led by the Department of Health, regarding relaxation of constraints on social and economic activity," according to its website.
The firm's "deliverables" include "frameworks for the state to determine sequencing, clustering and staging of economic re-opening" as well as data dashboards "to facilitate state decision-making on sequencing," according to a proposal submitted to the Office of Emergency Management and obtained by the Trenton Bureau of the USA TODAY Network Atlantic Group. It planned to assign a team of "experts, knowledge professionals, data analytics specialists, and support personnel" to the state, the document said.
On top of that, Murphy added, “Obviously we’ve got a great team in our own state.”
One state health official involved in the pandemic response said "one of the worst moments" in their time at the agency was when a senior leader "corners me" to find evidence that wearing masks outdoors prevents spread of the virus. The official said there was no context for the request. They said they looked at two studies related to masks but "nothing that specifically looked at mask efficacy" and called the senior official.
"They said, 'thank you,' and literally the next day, the outdoor mask executive order went through," the health official said. "I thought, this is just comical at this point. Why not have a conversation with us?"
The same health official said the level of consultation with pandemic responders on the decision to reopen schools in the fall "was in the form of an already fully-baked document that was circulated for tweaks, edits and suggestions."
They had less than 48 hours to provide input, that person said.
"The final document that was released to the public literally had none of our comments or suggestions factored into it," the official said. "Sharing it with us for comments was clearly just so they could say they ran it by DOH. But they wanted to do what they wanted to do: give superintendents maximum flexibility and respect the fault lines of local politics."
The recommendations from state health experts had included one to assess whether schools should consider virtual or in-person education closer to when the school year starts, when more recent data on case and transmission rates was available, and, in the meantime, to prepare for remote learning.
"They ignored that," a third Health Department official said.
Last Monday, three days after the head of the state's largest teacher's union said in an interview with NorthJersey.com that schools would not be ready to open in September, Murphy said his administration would release plans to allow parents to opt into virtual learning in the fall.
"Yet another political input that determined a public health decision," the health official said.
Murphy said at his briefing Wednesday that his decision was not connected to the concerns of the teacher's union, one of his biggest backers, but "that was something that we were pursuing in any event."
The reopening process has also exposed internal divisions between the Department of Health and the governor's office that have been widening since the virus reached New Jersey in March.
Since May, Persichilli has been captured in audio recordings venting that she “never” has the governor’s attention, speculating that the consultants were forced on her as a move to give cover to the administration for its response at nursing homes and complaining about the influence of another Cabinet official.
In other recordings she said she threatened to resign because the governor's chief counsel, Matt Platkin, suspected her top staff of leaking damaging private discussions of her to the news media.
“Matt (said), ‘get rid of everybody.’ So I waited, there was a big pause, and I went, ‘No, I am not going to do that.’ I said, ‘This is all targeted to me. So you’ll have my resignation in the morning. I’m the one that should leave first,’” Persichilli said in the recording from late May, which was first reported by NJ Advance Media and reviewed by the Trenton Bureau of the Network.
In a separate conversation from last month also reviewed by the Network, she said again that “the front office” thought members of her inner circle were leaking and that “this is becoming a distraction for everybody and I’m ready to leave.”
And in a conversation with a Health Department official, which has not previously been reported, Persichilli said: “I don't trust the front office. They're amateurs, as far as I'm concerned."
A call for transparency
Murphy’s office did not respond to questions about the commissioner's comments, the relationship between the agency and the governor's office, the climate of the agency and what role it plays in reopening decisions.
But Persichilli and three of the top officials leading the pandemic response, most of whom appear regularly at Murphy's coronavirus briefings, disputed the claims made by the other experts in the department.
"We work in partnership with the governor’s office every day to continue this fight against this deadly virus," Persichilli said through an agency spokeswoman. Deputy Commissioner Dr. David Adinaro added that "on matters large and small, including reopening decisions, my team and I are consulted from the beginning to provide guidance based on public health, data and science."
Dr. Christina Tan, the state epidemiologist, said: “The NJDOH Communicable Disease Service and other Departmental programs regularly reviews and advises on reopening plans and provide guidance for sister agencies, public health and healthcare partners."
And Department of Health Communicable Disease Service Medical Director Dr. Edward Lifshitz said that "The CDS team provides daily surveillance data. This data helps guide reopening decisions.”
Some lawmakers and state health experts said they believe some decisions are driven, at least in part, by political considerations — not science- and fact-based ones as Murphy claims.
Assembly Republican leader Jon Bramnick has been calling for legislative hearings to gather testimony from health experts, business owners and residents in an attempt to shed light on the governor's decisions.
A pandemic that's claimed more than 15,000 lives so far in New Jersey is the time to be more transparent about decisions, not blocking lawmakers seeking answers, he said.
"You’re hearing from his own people they don’t know who makes the decision. If they don’t know in the Health Department, what do you think the public thinks?" said Bramnick, R-Union. "This is just about open discussion on some of the most serious decisions – this affects people's employment, their lives, hospitals. Everybody’s affected by these decisions."
Democratic and Republican leaders have written to Murphy seeking more information on the data he's used to determine reopenings but, as of last month, hadn't received details.
State Sen. Ron Rice, D-Essex, said he understands why lawmakers and health officials are frustrated with how Murphy has determined pandemic responses and that it aligns with his more general frustration of Black leaders being left out of major decisions. But, he noted, he supports Murphy and believes he's "trying to do the right thing."
"I have concerns not so much with the governor per se — even though the buck stops at his desk — (but) concerns about what kind of information he’s receiving, and then who does the critique and the analysis of the information and tries to sway him in his policy decisions," Rice said.
The headline of this story was changed to include the word "some" before health experts. And an additional paragraph including a response sent Monday from the NJ Department of Health was added.
Dustin Racioppi is a reporter in the New Jersey Statehouse. For unlimited access to his work covering New Jersey’s governor and political power structure, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.