After federal health leaders further relaxed COVID-19 quarantine guidelines, New Jersey will no longer require state workers, government contractors or employees of school districts or child-care facilities to be regularly tested for the coronavirus if they are not immunized, essentially making vaccinations optional for these groups.
Gov. Phil Murphy signed an executive order Monday immediately ending the testing requirement for unvaccinated workers in schools and day-care settings, although these entities must continue to report immunization data and COVID-19 outbreaks to the state. State contractors will no longer be tested after Sept. 1, under the order, and a separate policy action will suspend state employee screenings as of the same date.
While the move eliminates a major vaccination incentive — avoiding weekly or bi-weekly testing — for close to 200,000 people, Murphy again asked New Jerseyans to continue to keep up with their COVID-19 immunizations. “As always, I encourage everyone to stay up-to-date on their vaccination and take other precautions as necessary to protect themselves and their loved ones from this virus,” he said.
‘Today’s executive order follows guidance from public health officials at the CDC regarding responsible steps states can take … to adjust to the endemic reality of COVID-19.’ — Gov. Phil Murphy
New Jersey will continue to require workers in health care, congregate housing and corrections facilities to be fully vaccinated and boosted, or face disciplinary action — and there is no testing option. Public health experts generally support vaccination mandates, and several state labor organizations have said a testing option is critical to ensure sufficient staff levels. But some critics have complained the testing itself is invasive and is now unnecessary, since the virus can spread among vaccinated people as well, although they are far less likely to get sick and die.
Murphy said suspending the testing program for schools, child-care centers, and state employees and contractors aligns with new recommendations issued by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week. “Today’s executive order follows guidance from public health officials at the CDC regarding responsible steps states can take as we continue to adjust to the endemic reality of COVID-19,” Murphy said. “With children as young as 6 months old now eligible for vaccines and millions of New Jerseyans vaccinated and boosted, more of our residents are safe from severe illness due to COVID-19.”
Immunizations vary by age
More than 6.8 million New Jerseyans have been vaccinated since COVID-19 immunizations were first available for adults in December 2020, but immunization coverage varies greatly by age. While most seniors are vaccinated, the rates lag among children, particularly the youngest group — between six months and 5 years — who were just cleared to receive the shots in June.
As of Aug. 15, nearly two-thirds of kids ages 12 through 17 had received their primary series of COVID-19 shots, but barely one-third had a booster shot, according to the state health department, something experts say is important protection against the newest strains of the virus. For children 5 through 11 years old, 35% had their first shots, and just over one in 10 had been boosted. Among 3- and 4-year-olds, just 1.4% had received a shot, and 0.7% of those 6 months through 2 years have been immunized, the state said. No booster dose has been approved for these youngest age groups.
COVID-19’s impact on New Jersey has declined significantly since early this year, when more than 37,000 diagnoses and likely cases were reported on a single day in January. But with increasingly infectious new variants of the virus now circulating — including among immunized people — daily case numbers ticked up in the spring and have remained high, with more than 3,000 new diagnoses reported most days in July, more than 10 times the rates seen last summer.
‘This guidance acknowledges that the pandemic is not over, but also helps us move to a point where COVID-19 no longer severely disrupts our daily lives.’ — Greta Massetti, CDC
The surge of the highly contagious omicron variant around the new year prompted Murphy to suspend what had been a choice to opt out of the testing originally in place for the more than 500,000 workers in health care facilities, congregate housing and correctional institutions, all places where a virus can easily spread. He signed an order creating a schedule by which these employees had to be fully vaccinated and boosted at least once, noting it would align state policy with federal guidelines issued weeks earlier.
But Murphy left in place the testing option for other types of workers, including some 64,000 state government employees — some 70% of whom were reportedly vaccinated — and roughly 130,000 teachers and other school district staff. He said ending this screening option now reflects the CDC’s new, less stringent recommendations around quarantine and isolation for those exposed or diagnosed with COVID-19, but not suffering symptoms, and guidance related to K-12 schools that calls for limited testing for staff and students.
New rules for COVID-19 exposure
Under the changes the CDC announced Thursday, the agency said those who are exposed to COVID-19 may now opt to wear a high-quality mask for 10 days when in public or with others at home, instead of quarantining. People who test positive should stay home, but isolation can last as little as five days for those without a fever and other symptoms.
CDC leaders also reiterated the importance of vaccination, especially with new variants emerging, and credited these shots with enabling the more relaxed recommendations. “We’re in a stronger place today as a nation, with more tools — like vaccination, boosters and treatments — to protect ourselves, and our communities, from severe illness from COVID-19,” said Greta Massetti, a public health expert with the federal agency.
“We also have a better understanding of how to protect people from being exposed to the virus, like wearing high-quality masks, testing and improved ventilation. This guidance acknowledges that the pandemic is not over, but also helps us move to a point where COVID-19 no longer severely disrupts our daily lives,” she said.