When Judy Persichilli took charge of the Department of Health in 2019, no one had heard of COVID-19 and few could predict the catastrophic impact the pandemic would have in New Jersey and around the globe. But the veteran hospital executive and first nurse to fill the position of Commissioner of Health soon became a woman “who needs no introduction.”
Persichilli was the face of the pandemic response in New Jersey, seen at nearly every COVID-19 briefing alongside Govt. Phil Murphyurging residents to wear masks, social distance and take precautions to keep themselves and others safe.
More than 2.3 million COVID-19 cases later, Murphy stood outside on a windy Wednesday to dedicate the New Jersey Department of Health State Office Building in Trenton as the “Judith M. Persichilli Building.”
“The title of Commissioner of Health comes with a broad portfolio and Judy remains an exemplary model of public service for the entire extraordinary staff,” Murphy said. “I hope as the first nurse to serve as commissioner of health, she has also inspired more than a few young people to pursue a career in nursing.”
Murphy called her advice “invaluable” and said she has been “intimately involved in health care policy at every level from creation to implementation.”
“I never thought when I came to Trenton as a 17-year-old to go to St. Francis Nursing School that I would be standing here today in front of all of you and that my name would be on a building,” she said .
Persichilli thanked her colleagues at the department and said that all of them deserve to have their names on the building too.
In addition to her work during the pandemic, Murphy highlighted Persichilli’s efforts to improve maternal health, the dangers of e-cigarettes, and the continued function of hospitals and community health centers.
The governor often heaped praise on his health commissioner through two years of COVID briefings and public appearance. But there was some tension in the background in the early days of the pandemic.
In May 2020, Murphy’s administration interviewed officials in the Health Department in an effort to find the sources of leaks that exposed friction between himself and Persichilli regarding the pandemic response. Persichilli said in a leaked private conversation she “never had a one-on-one” with Murphy and disagreed with the decision by the governor’s office to hire a New York firm to conduct a “rapid review” of long-term care facilities.
Ino private conversation she did not know was being recorded, Persichilli also complained about the $500,000 cost of the contract as well as her idea to organize a nonprofit public health institute being ignored, reporting by the USA TODAY Network showed.
A group of health officials also called for Persichilli’s resignation in a letter to legislators. The letter said Persichilli’s “failures” to heed the advice of public health experts led to “preventable deaths” at nursing homes. The officials said Persichilli placed too much emphasis on hospitals rather than long-term care facilities at the start of the outbreak, locations the deadly virus ripped through.
Before taking on the role, Persichilli served as the interim chief executive of University Hospital in Newark. She was appointed by the state to monitor and oversee the institution as it flooded amid failing finances, low marks for quality, and community objections to its shutdown of pediatric beds.