Independent review of state’s response to pandemic is finally here

Long-promised investigation to be led by Zoubek, former first assistant attorney general under Whitman, DiFrancesco

Mike Karras/Gannett (pool) Gov. Phil Murphy at Saturday's COVID-19 briefing.

Gov. Phil Murphy announced Monday that the state has commissioned an independent review of its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, including the state of readiness in early 2020, and how the state responded to the many challenges that emerged over the last three years.

The review will be led by Paul Zoubek and a team at Montgomery McCracken Walker & Rhoads, in conjunction with the management consulting firm Boston Consulting Group.

Zoubek, who served as first assistant attorney general in New Jersey during the administrations of Republican Govs. Christie Whitman and Donald DiFrancesco, has extensive experience in emergency management.

Zoubek served as the No. 2 official in the Department of Law and Public Safety during the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and has conducted a number of high-profile investigations of state government over the years, including a review of the State Police’s boxing program conducted last year.

According to the administration, the review of the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic will include, but not be limited to:

  • The state of readiness in New Jersey for a pandemic in early 2020;
  • Prominent emergency policy decisions that were made by the New Jersey government;
  • The pandemic response with respect to vulnerable residents, including members of congregate care settings;
  • The state government’s efforts to continue core functions, including providing direct services to residents.

It also will examine the management of public health aspects of the pandemic, including testing, vaccinations, personal protective equipment procurement and distribution, and coordination of the health care system and of health information around COVID-19.

The review will conclude with a comprehensive report that is expected to be released in late 2023 and will contain recommendations for enhancements and reforms to better prepare the state for the next public health crisis.

There was no indication of how much the review will cost.

Murphy has been promising a review since the early stages of the pandemic, but he has continually put it off, saying it was too soon. The media release on the review noted that New Jersey was the first state in the country to commission an independent review.

The state did, however, make two rounds of payments (totaling more than $68 million) to families of 190 residents who died in state-run facilities.

Murphy’s critics contend the state responded poorly — and that Murphy has put off the review to avoid certain issues coming to light.

Murphy, in the release, said he made every decision involving COVID-19 based on the available data, facts and science in order to preserve the health and safety of all 9.3 million residents.

“My responsibility as governor also demands a full and comprehensive review of how the state was prepared for and responded to the pandemic, so that we can take the steps to better prepare future administrations for a public health crisis,” he said.

“While COVID-19 is still present in our state, nation and world, we have moved from the pandemic to the endemic phase, and now is the right time to undertake such an independent review.”

Murphy said Zoubek is the right person to lead the review.

“As a widely respected, apolitical and experienced state and federal prosecutor, Paul Zoubek is exactly the right person to lead this review and has the experience in emergency management and government investigations that makes him perfectly suited for this task,” he said. “I am grateful to him, the rest of the team at Montgomery McCracken Walker & Rhoads and the Boston Consulting Group for agreeing to take on this important project.”