ROI Influencers: Health Care 2020 (No. 1 — Judith Persichilli)

Judith Persichilli
Commissioner of health
State of New Jersey

The once-in-a-century pandemic pushed a well-respected but unheralded nurse and health care executive, Judy Persichilli, into the public spotlight. From Day One.

Few may remember now, but when Gov. Phil Murphy was recovering from surgery in the opening days of the COVID-19 outbreak, it was Persichilli who ran the initial daily media briefings — which were watched heavily by a public eager for any bits of information.

It was Persichilli who explained what “community spread” and other new terms meant. 

It was Persichilli who told the public the merits of social distancing, hand washing and, eventually, face coverings.

It was Persichilli who reported the ever-growing numbers of cases — and then fatalities.

The state’s handling of the crisis will be Murphy’s legacy — but that legacy will be shaped in so many ways by the expert moves of Persichilli in her role as the commissioner of the Department of Health. 

“Judy has been at the middle of all of this, holding it together and hoping to not be ripped apart by it,” one insider and admirer said. “And she did it. And she did it with grace and poise. And I just feel like we’re fortunate that she was in that position at that time.”

It’s for all of these reasons and more that Persichilli is the only choice to be in the No. 1 overall spot of the 2020 ROI Influencers: Health Care list.

But, let’s be clear: Persichilli does not earn this ranking because she was able to navigate the situation without issue. This type of crisis comes with craziness. Perschilli is in the top spot because she was able to navigate the pandemic with so many issues swirling around her.

There was the handling of long-term care facilities — a situation that led to Murphy paying $500,000 to a group of so-called experts who quickly delivered a report that many felt was a political play insulting to Persichilli.

There were internal issues that led to the departure of one of her top aides, Chris Neuwirth.

There were decisions that the governor said were based on the data, but insiders say — on some occasions — have been made with little DOH input.

There even was the usually unflappable Persichilli — in a moment of private frustration — apparently being recorded by someone close to her.

Still, Persichilli has persisted with grace and poise, serving as a beacon of strength to the governor, who clearly still has confidence in her. For an unelected state official, she plays the political game well.

“I honestly feel bad for her,” the insider said. “She’s kind of like the fulcrum in the middle of this whole thing.”

Persichilli succeeds by staying focused.

“She’s very deliberate, very efficient,” the person said. “No words are wasted. She analyzes the situation and gives the response. And there is absolutely no ego.”

She sets an example that other officials would be wise to follow.

“The lack of an ego is an incredible thing about her,” the person said. “She has no problem letting other people on her team step up. She has no interest in getting credit or deflecting blame.”

In honor of this, we have added below numerous DOH staffers.  Gov. Phil Murphy, it should be noted, is only considered for our overall Influencer list.

Persichilli, however, gets the spotlight.

“To be able to work through all of this and keep focused on the really important matters and be able to block other things out as just being a part of politics is amazing,” the insider said.

It’s a job few would be able to do.

“I don’t know how she does what she does,” the insider said, “but I can count on one hand the number of people who could do what she has done — and that’s being generous.”

(Read the rest of the list.)

Unsung heroes of the DOH

We asked the Department of Health to nominate its unsung heroes who are supporting Commissioner Judith Persichilli during the COVID-19 pandemic. Here are the responses, listed in alphabetical order:

 From left are: Kelly Anderson-Thomas; Greta Anschuetz; and Jennifer Fearon.

Kelly Anderson-Thomas
Executive assistant
Integrated Health Services

Anderson-Thomas currently serves in the department’s Integrated Health Services Branch, where she assists in the oversight of the Division of Behavioral Health Services and the Division of Community Health Services. At the start of the pandemic, her knowledge of public health, specifically community health development, allowed her to assist in deployment of the department’s three regional field medical sites. More recently, she is serving as the state’s COVID-19 testing lead. Anderson-Thomas developed and implemented strategic and tactical practices to ensure compliance with state and federal testing recommendations, including the development of COVID-19 testing plans for targeted vulnerable populations.

Greta Anschuetz
Division of HIV, STD and TB Services

Since March, Anschuetz has worked on COVID response, first assisting with data quality for COVID-19 reports coming in and, since Easter, contact tracing. Anschuetz was essential in helping to launch the contact tracing database, CommCare, to New Jersey’s local health departments within 6 weeks and statewide within 8 weeks. In addition, Anschuetz has worked to onboard hundreds of new contact tracing staff and deploy them to local health departments.

Jennifer Fearon
Policy adviser
Office of Policy and Legislative Services

As NJDOH policy adviser during the COVID-19 public health emergency, Fearon serves as the policy team leader for the COVID-19 vaccine planning and delivery initiative, provides staff support to the NJDOH COVID-19 Professional Advisory Committee and to the Coronavirus Task Force, manages NJDOH’s involvement in health care provider education through Rutgers Project ECHO, and collaborates with department leadership on COVID-19-related policy reforms.

 From left are: Nancy Kearney; Amanda Medina-Forrester; and Mehnaz Mustafa.

Nancy Kearney
Communications manager
Office of Communications

Since joining the department in April, Kearney has worked with marketing firms on the department’s testing and contact tracing public awareness campaign and an exposure notification app public awareness campaign. Kearney responds to daily media inquiries and writes news releases and op-eds.

Amanda Medina-Forrester
Executive director
Office of Minority and Multicultural Health

As executive director of the department’s Office of Minority and Multicultural Health, Medina-Forrester is charged with ensuring health equity policies, practices and programs are implemented to reduce and eliminate health disparities among diverse and marginalized populations. She also leads the specific population team for the COVID-19 vaccine plan. Medina-Forrester developed COVID-19 testing and mitigation strategies for migrant and seasonal farm workers, establishing vaccine implementation committees comprised of community members with access to critical populations, enhancing communication plans to access specific populations, as well as the engagement and activation of key stakeholders, community organizers and tribal leaders.

Mehnaz Mustafa
Executive director
Health care quality and informatics

Mustafa supports the COVID-19 response on predictive analytic modeling that determines potential surge capacity needs for the state. She also leads the analytics efforts on disease progression, health system capacity and resilience, testing and core metrics, which inform safe reopening decisions. She provides stakeholders with an interactive dashboard on state, county and municipality-level core metrics. Mustafa also leads the analytics and reporting group for vaccination planning and implementation.

 From left are: Siobhan Pappas; Natassia Rozario; and Dawn Thomas.

Siobhan Pappas
Health data specialist
Child health

Dr. Pappas works on multiple Department of Health COVID-19 efforts including predictive analysis for resurgence, vaccination analytics planning and hot-spotting. Pappas also served on the analytics team for migrant workers.

Natassia Rozario
Opioid response and policy

In addition to her duties as director of opioid response and policy, Rozario helped support management of the field medical station in Secaucus and has helped design and implement COVID-19 prevention and testing strategies for populations experiencing extreme medical and social complexity, such as persons experiencing homelessness.

Dawn Thomas
Deputy director
Office of Communications

Throughout the COVID-19 response, Thomas has drafted the commissioner’s speaking points for Gov. Phil Murphy’s COVID-19 briefings, stakeholder calls and other public presentations.  She assists the director of communications in responding to media calls, arranging media interviews, working on public awareness campaigns and developing the department’s public messaging about the virus.

Thalia Sirjue.

Thalia Sirjue
Deputy chief of staff
Office of the Commissioner of Health

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Sirjue has led the contact tracing team as part of New Jersey’s overall response effort. In this capacity, she has overseen the launch of CommCare, the statewide contact tracing system, the development of the state’s contact tracing training program in collaboration with Rutgers School of Public Health, and the recruitment and hiring of the state’s contact tracing workforce through Public Consulting Group. Most recently, she led the team in development and launch of COVID Alert NJ, the state’s exposure notification app to supplement traditional contact tracing efforts.