Gov. Murphy announces long-awaited review of state’s COVID-19 response

Governor Phil Murphy at the Department of Military and Veteran’s affairs’ Memorial Day Ceremony

by Sophie Nieto-Munoz, New Jersey Monitor

An outside review of the state’s response to the pandemic is set to begin, more than 30 months after the pandemic began ravaging New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy announced Monday.

Philadelphia-based firm Montgomery McCracken Walker & Rhoads will lead the review and release a report in late 2023, the governor said in his announcement. The team will be led by Paul Zoubeck, who served in the attorney general’s office under two Republican governors.

“While COVID-19 is still present in our state, nation, and world, we have moved from the pandemic to the endemic phase, and now is the right time to undertake such an independent review,” Murphy said in a statement.

The report will explore how well the state was prepared for the pandemic, Murphy’s emergency decisions, how the state handled the virus’ spread in nursing homes and among other “vulnerable residents,” and more, the governor’s office said.

During the review, the state’s management of COVID-19 testing, vaccines, and personal protection equipment will also come under scrutiny. The report will provide recommendations for how the state can be equipped to better handle future public health emergencies, the governor’s office said.

Murphy, a Democrat elected to his second term last year, has been promising a so-called post-mortem review of the state’s handling of the pandemic since April 2020. The review was first reported by NJ Advance Media.

Republicans have long called for an independent review. State Sen. Holly Schepisi (R-Bergen) said she finds the timing of the investigation to be “striking,” noting that a federal agency last week said it would withhold funding for a Menlo Park veterans home after the Murphy administration failed to fix major problems there.

Schepisi said she hopes the Murphy administration will fully cooperate with Montgomery McCracken, including by giving complete access to how policy decisions were made and making staffers available for in-depth interviews.

“If they do a deep dive on nursing homes and don’t put anything on (Murphy’s team), that’s a far different story than, ‘Here’s everything so you have the full ability to understand what went right and what went wrong. Those are two entirely different concepts,” Schepisi said.

Boston Consulting Group will assist with the review.

Zoubek has “extensive experience” in emergency management, the governor’s office said, pointing to his work in the state Department of Law and Public Safety during the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks and his review of the death of a State Police recruit during a boxing match at a Sea Girt training facility in 2020.

This is the second outside review of the state’s pandemic response. In 2020, Manatt Health investigated the high death tolls in the state’s nursing homes. The consultant’s 100-page report determined that long-term care centers were understaffed and not equipped for the pandemic.

The Manatt Health study cost taxpayers about $500,000. The governor’s office did not say Monday how much the current review will cost.

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