It was the middle of March — a time when New Jersey could still identify each new case of something people were still calling the coronavirus (not the more accurate COIVD-19). A time when schools were going virtual (in an abundance of caution). A time when some were still saying wearing masks was not necessarily a good idea (because they gave a false sense of security).
Barry Ostrowsky, the well-respected CEO of RWJBarnabas Health — a man who always chooses his words wisely — was the first well-known figure in health care or government to call for a statewide shutdown.
“You should publish this,” he told ROI-NJ on March 18. “The public health approach of keeping people sheltered in place or quarantined is the most important thing, there’s no doubt about it. Otherwise, we’re just planning for this contagion in a pandemic way.
“Why don’t we see if we can’t stop much of it or spread it out over the months. It will be a lot easier — and certainly a lot less expensive.”
A few days later, Gov. Phil Murphy ordered all nonessential employees to stay home.
With the state smack in the middle of a second wave of COVID-19 cases — Sunday marked the 15th consecutive day the state has topped 1,000 new cases — ROI-NJ went back to Ostrowsky to see if he would again make the call for the state to shelter in place.
His answer was straightforward: No.
Times have changed, Ostrowsky said Friday. We know more about how to treat COVID-19. We know more about why we need to take it seriously. And we know more about the impact a state shutdown would have on society.
“I think now, as we hit this second wave, responsibility has shifted, at least sufficiently as far as I’m concerned, to a more personal responsibility platform,” he said. “I think it would be very difficult — all things taken into consideration — to go back and start shutting down what may be defined as nonessential businesses.
“I think the impact on the society, as it currently exists, could be devastating in many ways, culturally, certainly economically.”
That doesn’t mean Ostrowsky doesn’t have thoughts on how the state can mitigate the impact of the second wave.
“I think the emphasis has to be on a couple of things,” he said. “One, you’ve got to stratify who’s most at risk. People ask me all the time: ‘Should I be doing this? Or should I be doing that?’ As far as I’m concerned, if you’re at a particular age with a certain number, or one significant preexisting condition, you need to effectively lock down. I know, it’s frustrating. But I think, notwithstanding the fact that things are open, if you’re in that age group, and that health category, you need to stop participating or participate to the absolute essential minimum.”
Ostrowsky warns that high-risk communities are not always older communities.
“We have to pay a lot of attention to our vulnerable populations, and that includes people of color,” he said. “Unfortunately, many people of color in particular have jobs that are essential, and have no choice, for the most part, but to continue to work. We have to pay very strict attention to ensuring that they are taking care of themselves and, if they need special support, we need to provide it.”
Lower-risk communities need to do their part, too, Ostrowsky said. That means — in addition to face coverings — the avoidance of large gatherings.
Ostrowsky’s words echo those of Murphy, who repeatedly has said he prefers a scalpel rather than a hammer approach to attacking outbreaks — all while saying a second shutdown still is a possibility.
Ostrowsky said the impact a second shutdown would have on the economy may not be worth the result.
“At this point, if we’re going to go back and shut down businesses, I think would be very, very difficult — and probably could have a counterproductive reaction.”
All this being said, Ostrowsky stands by his comments in March. He feels it was the right course of action against a pandemic the likes of which we had not seen in our lifetime.
“That answer was informed, if not exclusively, then primarily, by the Imperial College model that came out of the UK, which I must have read a half a dozen times,” he said. “It was as scary as anything I think I’d ever read that had practical application.
“Mitigation was absolutely required. And the best way to get mitigation was to at least impose as strict a lockdown in nonessential activities as we could muster. And I do think it helped. It certainly had a positive impact. I happen to be a big fan of the leadership we’re getting out of Trenton, between the governor and certainly our commissioner of health.”
“I think it is about leading people and insisting as best we can that people take on the responsibility of protecting themselves,” he said.
“Of course, enforcing the rules is always a problem. So, the constant pleas that many of us try to provide of all the things that we know make a difference — masks, social distancing and not encouraging participation in things that we know carry a higher degree of risk — is what we have to do.”