Commissioner of Health Judy Persichilli signaled she would keep to her role if Gov. Phil Murphy wins a second term but stopped short of saying so outright Wednesday.
“That’s up to him more than me, so we’ll just take it as it goes,” she told the New Jersey Globe, referring to Murphy. “This has been a tough year and a half, but it’s getting better now.”
There seems to be little question in the governor’s mind about who would head the Department of Health in a second term of the Murphy administration.
“Judy has agreed to stay on as commissioner for the next 20 years,” Murphy said jokingly at Wednesday’s virus briefing. “Which, making news here today, I applaud Judy’s willingness to stay the course.”
Persichilli entered her current role in an acting capacity in August 2019, replacing Shereef Elnahal, who himself took over as president and CEO of University Hospital, positions Persichilli then held on an interim basis.
The full Senate confirmed Persichilli in January 2020, less than two months before the state saw its first case of COVID-19.
Since then, she’s been a constant presence and an integral part of the administration’s messaging over its pandemic response. The governor, perhaps accurately, introduces her at virus briefings as “the woman who needs no introduction.”
But the pandemic upended priorities Persichilli held when she first took up her commissionership, and as the pandemic wanes, the registered nurse is looking to get those moving again.
The old priorities — ones still held — include reducing maternal and infant mortality rates, particularly among the state’s black residents, and concerns over children’s exposure to lead.
“I’m concerned about lead because of the lack of screening and kids home with lead dust and peeling paint,” she said.
Concerns over the opioid epidemic have also persisted throughout the pandemic, and other communicable diseases where officials are seeing fluctuations in spread, like HIV and other sexually transmitted infections are a growing source of worry.
But mental health among the state’s health care workforce has emerged as a major concern in the pandemic’s waning months.
Such workers, exposed to widespread death and hard hours for much of the pandemic, have reported high levels of stress, and afflictions like post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and burnout are becoming increasingly common among their ranks.
“It’s a huge concern of mine for the frontline workers,” Persichilli said.
The commissioner has, at times, been a target for Republicans dissatisfied with the governor’s response to the pandemic, much in the same way that U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci became a target of supporters of former President Donald Trump.
She and Murphy have face criticism over their handling of the virus in the state’s nursing homes, which saw widespread deaths early into the pandemic, when knowledge about treating and controlling the spread of COVID-19 was scant.
It’s not clear whether the possibility of her returning if Murphy wins a second term will affect the governor’s race against former Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli in any meaningful way.