Elnahal on difficulty of handling virus outbreaks

New Jersey Health Commissioner Shereef Elnahal spoke about the virus outbreaks at state facilities, most notably the Wanaque Center for Nursing and Rehabilitation, that have contributed to the death of at least 11 children.

Shereef Elnahal: Every time I’ve had a chance to speak about this publicly, I’ve mentioned the fact that this is outbreak No. 500-and-change that the department has managed. We have a team of incredibly professional folks who deal with this every single day. Now, I’m on the notification system for outbreaks every single day, I see at least a couple a day. I’m not going to pretend to understand, nor is my staff, what the grief is like for a family who has had a family member pass away as a result of this outbreak. That is not to be understated by any means. But when you have a situation like this that is so tragic, the natural human inclination is to find who is responsible. Who dropped the ball? What went wrong?

I understand where that comes from, because this outcome is unacceptable, and it should be. We have to do everything we can to prevent it from happening again. I think the most important thing to understand is that this situation was an extremely difficult one from the start. We are in the midst of our analysis now, and the vast majority of cases actually likely contracted the virus even before the DOH was notified. That’s because the incubation period is so long and it survives for so long. That made this difficult to deal with from the start. The conduct of the facility is actively being investigated.

I can say with confidence our department did the right thing from the moment they found out. The governor was very concerned about the situation. I was briefing him on it every day. That feeds into the story of when this job gets difficult. That’s not to say I’m the victim in all of this, I am by no means at all. But the job requires you to explain these nuances to the public and keep the morale of the staff up, even in the face of criticism. It requires you to personally own and be accountable for what is happening — which means evening calls, early morning calls, meetings every day and it requires a constant consultation with everyone from the attorney general to human services to other departments in crisis mode. 

That has been something that I’ve learned so much from. It really shows you how much you depend on your team and your colleagues to do the right thing. This is when you’re battle-tested, and I think we’ve all learned a lot from it. 

Read more from ROI-NJ’s Q&A with Shereef Elnahal: