Q&A with Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli: How Is NJ Responding to COVID-19?

The state’s top health official describes our latest coronavirus efforts and shares advice on testing, treatment and prevention.

Photo illustration by Andrew Ogilvie; virus and paper images via Shutterstock; Judith Persichilli photo via AP Photo/Seth Wenig; map info via NJ.gov

Judith Persichilli began her career in the trenches, as a nurse in the intensive care unit at Trenton’s St. Francis Hospital, and she’s very much in the trenches today. As commissioner of New Jersey’s Department of Health—the first nurse to hold the position—Persichilli is overseeing the state’s response to the most serious pandemic the world has experienced in more than a century.

By all indications, the state is in excellent hands. Persichilli, who began as acting commissioner of health in August 2019 and was confirmed as commissioner in January, has had a distinguished career in medical administration. 

After working as a nurse educator and then a weekend nursing supervisor at St. Francis Hospital, she left to get her Master of Arts in administration from Rider University, where she graduated summa cum laude. She returned to St. Francis, eventually rising to CEO.

Persichilli later became chief executive of the Catholic Health East (CHE) medical system and then interim CEO for several months when CHE merged with Trinity Health in 2013. After exposing serious problems of leadership at New Jersey’s only public hospital, University Hospital in Newark, she was appointed CEO there.  

When Governor Phil Murphy announced Persichilli as his choice for health commissioner, he lauded her as “a true health care professional, with keen insight into managing health systems to enhance the public good.” On January 24, as news of COVID-19 began filtering in from Wuhan, China, she convened the first meeting with her staff to discuss the state’s potential response.

In late March, New Jersey Monthly interviewed Persichilli by e-mail to learn the latest information on the state’s efforts to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.


Are front-line health workers finally getting the equipment they need to protect themselves and their patients? 

Since March 15, the department has distributed more than 252,000 items of personal protective equipment, or PPE, including N95 respirators, face masks and shields, gowns and gloves to 20 of the most impacted hospitals in New Jersey.  

We anticipate resources being needed in all areas of the state. The department has set up a regionalization system in the state so health care facilities can work together to maximize health care resources in their particular region. New Jersey has created an online form through which businesses and non-hospital healthcare facilities in possession of PPE not required for the provision of critical health care services can donate supplies. Per Executive Order 109, which Governor Murphy signed on March 23, any business, non-hospital health care facility, or institution of higher learning in possession of PPE, ventilators, respirators, or anesthesia machines not required for the provision of critical health care services is required to undertake an inventory of these supplies. 

What do you foresee in terms of availability of beds and ventilators?

New Jersey currently has 18,433 acute-care hospital beds, including 2,000 critical-care beds. We have about 2,000 ventilators in inventory. The state has requested an additional 2,300 ventilators from the Strategic National Stockpile. [SNS is the nation’s reserve of medical supplies.] I’ve outlined plans to add 2,360 beds over the next six weeks, including 1,000 through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers creation of four field hospitals, and several hundred more via the reopening of Inspira Medical Center in Woodbury, and unused wings of currently operational hospitals.

To what degree are medical students and retired doctors and nurses being recruited as backups to active medical personnel?

A portal has just been set up to gather information on health care professionals willing to volunteer.

Many of the state’s hospitals aren’t part of large systems. In what ways might this help or hamper our ability to deal with the pandemic? 

We anticipate resources being needed in all areas of the state. The Department of Health has set up a regionalization system so health care facilities can work together to maximize healthcare resources in their particular region.


Where should residents of the state turn if they experience symptoms associated with COVID-19? 

If you develop symptoms such as fever, cough and/or difficulty breathing, and have been in close contact with a person known to have COVID-19, or have recently traveled from an area with ongoing spread of COVID-19, you should stay home and call your health care provider. If you develop severe symptoms, you should contact your health care provider or emergency room and seek care immediately.

Is everyone in New Jersey who needs testing currently being tested? If not, when can we expect to achieve this? 

The Department of Health has been prioritizing testing for our most vulnerable individuals, including those who are hospitalized, symptomatic health care workers, first responders who have been exposed, individuals who may be part of a cluster or outbreak, and the medically fragile in communal settings. Testing isn’t recommended for those without symptoms.

New Jersey has sufficient lab capacity to test those in need of testing and continues to expand testing options. Since testing first began, community-based testing and testing by providers and other medical facilities have been available.

Two testing sites—Bergen County Community College in Paramus and PNC Arts Center in Holmdel—were created in partnership with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the New Jersey Department of Health, the New Jersey State Police and the New Jersey National Guard. Counties have opened their own drive-through specimen-collection sites for their residents. Essex and Passaic counties opened drive-through specimen-collection sites [in late March]. 

On March 17, the New Jersey Department of Health issued guidance for county governments for the planning and operation of drive-through specimen collection clinics to ensure standardization of drive-through clinics across the state.


What can patients do to mitigate symptoms?

Over-the-counter medicines may help with symptoms. Sick individuals should also drink lots of fluids to stay hydrated and rest at home.

What are the virus’s worst symptoms?

Common symptoms of COVID-19 include fever and cough. Trouble breathing is a more serious symptom that means you should get medical attention. Sore throat, nausea and diarrhea may occur. Most patients with confirmed COVID-19 have developed fever and/or symptoms of acute respiratory illness, like cough and difficulty breathing.

If you’re treating yourself at home, how do you know when to escalate to the ER?

There are some emergency warning signs for COVID-19 for which individuals should seek medical attention. These include trouble breathing, persistent pain or pressure in the chest, new [onset of] confusion or inability to arouse, and bluish lips or face.

If one family member tests positive, should everyone else in the home be tested?

Close contacts of confirmed COVID-19 cases who don’t have symptoms of fever, cough or difficulty breathing should stay home and monitor themselves for symptoms for 14 days. If symptoms appear, you must stay home until you are fever free for at least 72 hours without the use of fever-reducing medicine, other symptoms have improved, and at least seven days have passed since symptoms first started. 

Unless your symptoms get worse, more than likely you don’t need to be tested. Wash hands frequently and don’t go to work/school or public gatherings while self-isolating.

Do we know if being infected once with COVID-19 is sufficient to build resistance?

It’s unknown if a person is immune to COVID-19 if they had it and recovered. State epidemiologist Dr. Tina Tan said during a March 26 press briefing that we still don’t have a lot of information specific to SARS-COV 2, the virus that causes COVID-19. But we do have a lot of information on other coronaviruses, such as the coronavirus that causes MERS, another similar severe respiratory illness that has impacted certain parts of the world. And it’s thought that, based on the MERS data, there might be some level of immunity that’s conferred onto individuals who are initially infected. But again, we’re still in the process of gathering those data.

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