Throughout our multi-month COVID tribulation, which has killed closed to 600,000 Americans and infected over 33 million, we have heard elected officials vow that they would address the vast racial disparities that the pandemic so starkly revealed.
In press briefing after press briefing Governors Murphy and Cuomo extolled the selflessness of our essential workforce in healthcare, transportation, emergency services, grocery and food services. Both Governors, based on the research by their medical experts, explained that as a consequence of workforce demographics, communities of color were inordinately carrying the risk and consequences of infecting themselves and their families in the service of the entire country.
How often did we hear that we would no longer permit these essential workers, who died by the thousands, to become invisible ever again?
Yet, based on how the two Governors have reacted to the CDC’s May 13 dropping of the mask and social distancing requirements for the vaccinated population, it appears that only Gov. Murphy is keeping that workforce and communities of color in his sights with his controversial decision to break with Gov. Cuomo and persist in the indoor masking requirements for everyone, regardless of their vaccination status.
It may have stung a bit for the Governor to hear the usually sensible Willie Geist, a New Jersey favorite son, proclaim on Jersey Democrats’ promotional channel MSNBC that Murphy had erred and that “he really does stand alone.”
“I just don’t want to get burned,” Murphy told reporters on May 17. “I can’t speak for our neighbors. They’ve been great partners. But on this one, we feel quite strongly.”
“That makes New Jersey one of only a few American states without immediate plans to comply with the new CDC guidance,” wrote NJ Advance Media’s Matt Arco and Brent Johnson. “California is one of the others, but Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom has said the state will adopt the guidelines by June 15. Massachusetts will do so May 29.”
Apparently, Murphy’s caution was shared by Hawaii Governor David Ige, who has also opted to wait for more of his population to be vaccinated.
New Jersey Republicans pounced on Murphy’s divergence from the CDC’s scientifically informed guidance as “hypocrisy” and said he had “lost all credibility” on the subject.
Meanwhile, east of the Hudson River, Murphy’s decision to hold off on lifting the mask mandate was getting praise from one of the nation’s top epidemiologist Dr. Celine Gounder, who served on President Biden’s COVID transition taskforce.
During a May 19 press briefing, convened by Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, Dr. Gounder told reporters the CDC should have coordinated the shift in guidance with “stakeholders” including labor unions and the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Dr. Gounder was sharply critical of the CDC’s decision to rely solely on the ‘honor system’ when it came to waiving the mask and social distancing requirements for those that are vaccinated.
“You need to take into consideration other questions for example how can you be sure somebody has truly been vaccinated,” she said. “We know the horror system does not work. There’s a reason somebody goes into a bar and we card them when they want to buy alcohol.”
Dr. Gounder continued. “Similarly, many people will be honest when they say ‘yes, I have been vaccinated. I don’t need to wear a mask anymore.’ But the fact is not everybody will be and some of those who have been most resistant to wearing a mask are also those who unfortunately maybe most resistant to getting vaccinated right now. And so, that does really pose a risk to other people.”
The Public Advocate’s health advisor told reporters that nationally, slightly more than one in four Black Americans were vaccinated with Hispanics rate just a few percentage points higher. She maintains that the CDC would have been better advised to wait for the vaccination rate in communities of color to hit the 50 percent mark before rolling back the mask and social distancing requirements.
“It is the duty of public health not to just look out for the individual, but the population and specifically the most vulnerable among us,” she said.
The stark racial disparity in vaccination rates is equally evident in New Jersey as NBC’s Brian Thompson reported earlier this month. Wealthy primarily white towns like Livingston had an 85 percent vaccination rate. “Not far behind are four other communities: Millburn, Paramus, Haddonfield and West Windsor. What do all those towns have in common? All are considered economically well-off, and likely have greater access to vaccination centers as compared to those in cities,” Thompson reported.
By contrast “at the bottom of the list for vaccinations, four municipalities with large income disparities: New Brunswick, Irvington, Phillipsburg, Pemberton and East Orange. Those communities each have around 40 percent vaccination rates.”
And while a lot has been written about Murphy’s status as not being one ‘of the cool kids getting with the summer fun program like Gov. Cuomo’ we haven’t seen enough of the actual executive order Murphy signed on May 17 which lifted the state’s requirement that residents wear masks outdoors where six feet social distancing was not possible.
It includes such salient points as until this fall “infants and children up to age 11 are not currently eligible for vaccination” and that “in the absence of a vaccine passport or other type of verification system, it would be difficult to ensure that unmasked individuals who enter businesses are actually vaccinated.”
Perhaps most importantly, Murphy anticipated in that order that “lifting the indoor mask mandate would unnecessarily endanger front line workers and could lead to a rise in transmission among individuals not yet vaccinated.”
And, as for Murphy being “alone” on the mask mandate, he has the strong support of the state’s unions representing essential workers whose members and families have already paid such a steep price for serving others.
“We are writing to applaud your announcement that NJ will maintain an indoor masking mandate despite the new CDC guidance that fully vaccinated people could go without face coverings and social distancing,” wrote the leadership of the Health Professionals Allied Employees, the state’s largest healthcare union. “As representatives of the healthcare community, we support your choosing caution, as the CDC prematurely recommended that our nation return to normal.”
The letter continued. “The CDC guidance on indoor activities of any size without a mask or social distancing, gives the public the go ahead to return to normal at a time when our nation needs to establish guidelines and benchmarks that lead us to a return to normal. The facts do not lie and the reality is that our state is still in a public health emergency and the COVID pandemic is not over.”
“By masking, we are protecting those with compromised immune systems and children, and those who cannot be vaccinated because either the vaccine is contraindicated for them or because they run the risk of experiencing a severe reaction,” HPAE, which is affiliated with the AFT/AFL-CIO wrote. “By announcing that it is safe to unmask for the vaccinated, we are putting others at risk. We know there are some who have not been vaccinated and are waiting for an announcement such as this. They are the knuckleheads you’ve repeatedly referred to in your press conferences and they will, as we’ve seen, throw caution to the wind. We can’t take that risk.”
Similarly, words of support for Murphy’s “outlier” position came from the national office of United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) which represents 1.3 million essential food and retail workers including 52,000 in New Jersey.
The UFCW blasted the CDC’s new guidance observing correctly it would force frontline retail workers to play “vaccination police” to sort out which customers would have to continue to wear their masks.
“New Jersey frontline grocery workers have put their lives on the line daily to make sure families have the food they need during the pandemic,” wrote International UFCW President Marc Perrone. “Governor Murphy is showing the leadership New Jersey workers and families need by putting public health and safety first and keeping the state’s mask mandate in place.”
And most importantly, UFCW has confirmed “that COVID-19 continues to threaten essential food workers nationwide. Since March 1, UFCW reports a nearly 35 percent increase in grocery worker deaths and a nearly 30 percent increase in grocery workers infected or exposed following supermarket outbreaks at Whole Foods, Costco, Trader Joe’s and other chains across the country.”
The union now estimates at least 185 grocery worker and 132 meatpacking work have died from COVID with tens of thousands of union members infected or exposed to the virus, which is known to pose life-long health risks.
HPAE knows of seven members who have died from the virus but throughout the pandemic there’s been no registry maintained of the number of essential workers that have perished or become infected.
Thanks to a joint reporting project by the Guardian and Kaiser Health News, we do know that more than 3,500 health care workers who were under 60 years of age died from COVID, with 700 from just New Jersey and New York alone.
Even as healthcare workers and other essential workers continue to rise to the challenge of serving us, employers in both the public and private sector are doing all they can to avoid any liability for the impact of COVID on their workforce.
From our hospitals to the U.S Postal Service, unions are demanding that employers disclose these numbers because only with a detailed accounting can we fully understand how the virus was transmitted in the occupational settings workers found themselves.
Without that painful accounting, essential workers, particularly of color, will remain invisible except to a leader like Phil Murphy.