Gov. Phil Murphy’s decision to repeal the nationwide mandate for school masks next month was seen by many as a victory for New Jersey residents tired of the coronavirus. With similar steps taken in Connecticut, Delaware and New York, the region seemed to be entering a new phase of the pandemic.
But some health executives have expressed concern about these steps, which they believe are premature given their experience in combating COVID-19. Federal guidelines continue to call for disguise at school, they note, children remain under-vaccinated and health workers have not yet breathed a sigh of relief from the latest wave of infections caused by the high-transmission omicron variant.
“It’s incredibly sad to see that there is an announcement that the masks will be removed,” said Nurse Debbie White, president of the Department of Healthcare Professionals and Associates, which represents thousands of front-line educators. Nurses and other health workers are exhausted after the micron surge, she said, and feel left out by state and federal officials who have vowed to support them in the crisis.
“It’s scary,” White said of the policy change. “Masking has become a very politicized issue and is no longer necessarily based on science.”
While she is grateful that Murphy did not implement the change immediately, White said there was “no science that would claim that in a month we will be safe” without face coatings. “Why are we doing this?” She asked. “Aren’t we a state that takes action based on science?”
Why Murphy canceled the mask mandate
Murphy’s team insists that’s the case. Last week, when he unveiled his plan to repeal the mandate – which takes effect March 7 in schools and children’s institutions – Murphy took into account the sharp decline in COVID-19 cases and related hospitalizations and predicted that the trend would continue. He noted that individual districts or facilities may maintain this requirement, which Newark, Camden and other districts plan to do.
“Next month we predict that the whole state will be [experiencing] moderate disease progression and some move to low risk, “said State Commissioner for Health Judy Persicili Chat with David Cruz. “As we get into a moderate or low risk situation, it’s getting safer and safer,” she said.
Murphy’s decision on masks was also based on the fact that federal officials had to reconsider the approval of the vaccine for children under 5 years old. On Friday, the Office of Food and Drug Administration announced it would postpone the review. Another factor in this decision is the overall level of vaccination and the apparent ability of the vaccine and its booster to prevent serious infections and diseases. Also Friday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that regulatory injections would take effect in about four months, which could mean more is needed.
State health officials said Friday that the projections are based on a pandemic simulation and a close review of COVID-19 activity in recent weeks, which has been steadily declining, according to the State Infectious Diseases Service. In addition, new diagnoses of COVID-19 decreased by more than 90% since the peak in early January, when more than 38,000 cases and probable diagnoses were reported in one day. In recent weeks, the number of related hospitalizations has also dropped almost threefold.
Public appetite for pandemic-related restrictions is also waning. A University of Manmouth poll in late January says seven out of 10 Americans believe COVID-19 is here to stay and people need to learn live with a coronavirus. Murphy convened focus groups that also figured out this frustration after his narrow re-election in November, but his staff said the findings did not affect the decision to end the mask’s mandate.
The silent majority
White of the HPAE said she believes there is a larger, more silent majority in favor of maintaining greater pandemic precautions. She wonders why the state acted to end this demand when the federal CDC, which led the response to COVID-19, continues encourage camouflage for all students 2 years and older and adults in all schools and kindergartens, regardless of vaccination status.
Persikili said in the Chat Box that this is the first time New Jersey has “overtaken the CDC” on the recommendation of a pandemic policy. In the past, the state complied with or exceeded the agency’s guidelines, she said, but COVID-19 trends here supported a decision to cancel the mask mandate next month.
“The CDC is responsible for the whole nation,” Persicili said. She noted that the federal agency should provide policy recommendations for the entire country, part of which is still battling the virus.
But even with positive downward trends in COVID-19 here, it is “too early” to cancel the mask mandate in New Jersey, said Doug Plaka, executive director of JNESO, a union representing about 5,000 health workers in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
“We understand that the public wants to return to ‘normalcy’, but the burden on the health care system is already at a critical point, despite the fact that the number of hospitalizations and deaths is declining,” Plaka said. “We hope to avoid another outbreak, but cutting such an effective tool as the proper use of masks to eliminate this virus may be too soon.”
Senator Joe Vitaly (D-Middlesex), longtime chairman of the Senate Health Committee, also disagreed with Murphy’s decision to resign, according to Report on NJ.com. Vitaly, who has two children under the age of 5, said he was particularly upset by the decision to repeal the requirement to close the face in childcare facilities. He and his wife decided to leave their children at home until they received the vaccine.
“I don’t care what other states do,” Vital said. “I don’t care what the CDC says. And they don’t think it’s a good idea to take off masks in schools. “
While New Jersey has one of the highest vaccination rates in the country – more than nine out of 10 residents have had at least one vaccination – immunization continues to lag behind among children, what Vitaly said emphasizes the importance of camouflage in these settings. According to government data, less than 30% of children aged 5 to 11 received all vaccinations, while 57% of those 12 to 15 and 68% of those aged 16 and 17 were fully immunized.
These low vaccination rates also worry White and HPAE members, many of whom themselves have young children. “Children are little little Petri dishes. They’re adorable, but they’re little germ distributors, ”White said. “What about their family at home, what about the grandparents of these children, what about their teachers?” She added. “It creates a whole new set of problems for children and schools.”