New Jersey officials planning for possibility of rationing ventilators

New Jersey officials are beginning to discuss the “haunting” possibility that hospitals may soon have to decide which patients critically ill with coronavirus get ventilators and which do not.

Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli said during a press conference with Gov. Phil Murphy on Thursday that the Medical Society of New Jersey is putting together an advisory committee that will, among other things, address “the bioethical considerations of the availability of particularly life-saving modalities like ventilators.”

“That is, I would have to say, one of the more difficult issues we will be discussing,” Persichilli said, noting that state officials will be included on the committee. “I do want to make sure that everyone understands that we are doing everything possible to make sure that we do not get into that situation. But if we do, we will be prepared.”

Murphy called the development “haunting,” but said “we would be abrogating our responsibilities to not plan for that.”

The governor said the state has asked the federal government for 2,500 ventilators on top of the 2,000 it already has, along with 4.5 million N95 masks. The state also estimates it will need 2,000 critical care beds on top of the 2,000 it already has.

On Wednesday, Dr. Vijayant Singh, chief hospital executive at Bayonne Medical Center, told POLITICO that CarePoint Health, which operates the Bayonne hospital as well as two others in Hudson County, is close to running out of ventilators.

The discussion comes as Murphy announced during the press conference 2,492 new coronavirus cases in New Jersey over the past 24 hours — by far the largest number reported in that time frame. That brings the total number of state cases to 6,876, second most in the country behind New York. Murphy also said 19 more people have died, bringing the state’s total to 81. Part of the reason for the huge jump in known cases is the state’s ramped up testing, the governor said.

Persichilli said 43 of the state’s 375 long-term health care facilities have at least one known Covid-19 case. The situation got so dire at the St. Joseph’s Senior Home-Assisted Living and Nursing Center in Woodbridge that the state determined after getting 24 positive results among residents and five among staff that all 78 residents are assumed to have been exposed to the virus.

All of the residents have been transferred to other facilities.

This Saturday, the two state-run testing sites — at Bergen Community College in Paramus and at the PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel — will be dedicated exclusively to testing health care workers and first responders who are showing symptoms of Covid-19, Murphy said. Beginning next Saturday and each Saturday after that, the Holmdel testing facility will be devoted solely to them.

Murphy also announced that schools will remain closed until at least April 17 and that he won’t make a decision on whether to cancel the remainder of the school year until then. The governor ordered all public and private schools in the state to close on March 18.

“The decision to reopen will be based on careful discussion with our public health and safety experts, and with our educators and districts,” Murphy said. “We will be guided by the facts on the ground.”

Murphy also fielded several questions from reporters about how the pandemic would affect the state’s finances. He said the loss of revenue due to the coronavirus only heightens the need for a millionaire’s tax, something the governor has pushed for since taking office.

Senate President Steve Sweeney, who has fought against the tax, said earlier this year that he’d be open to supporting it this year as long as the state adds another $1 billion to its pension contribution.

Asked if he thinks this potential deal is still possible given the economic uncertainty, Murphy said it was too early to tell, and that he and lawmakers would have to determine how much New Jersey would receive from the federal stimulus package.

“Reliable recurring revenue is the most important revenue you can have,” he said. “Our revenues are getting crushed right now which is why this federal bill is so important to us, and it’s not the last amount of support we are going to need.”

Katherine Landergan, Carly Sitrin and Samantha Maldonado contributed to this report.