Here’s a widely forgotten fact about the daily COVID-19 news conferences Gov. Phil Murphy gave on an almost daily basis for two years: He did not run the first one.
Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver handled the duties while Murphy was recuperating at a New York City area hospital, where he went for cancer surgery.
And, on March 10, 2020, it was Oliver who announced the first COVID-related death in the state.
These moments show two things: How Oliver, without fanfare, always stepped up for the good of the administration and the state — and how Oliver was committed to health care, especially for those in communities that historically have been marginalized by health care providers.
Oliver, 71, died earlier this week, following a long undisclosed illness.
Cathy Bennett, the CEO of the New Jersey Hospital Association, said her impact on the health care went well beyond the four walls of a health care facility. And, often, she said, Oliver was ahead of the crowd.
“A champion for housing access, she helped New Jersey hospitals develop supportive housing for vulnerable community members,” Bennett said. “Because of her leadership, more New Jersey residents now enjoy the security of a home. Lt. Gov. Oliver’s partnership and friendship will be missed.”
Bob Garrett, the CEO of Hackensack Meridian Health, said Oliver’s impact in health care has been felt for years — and will continue to be felt for generations.
“I witnessed firsthand her unwavering dedication and tireless efforts to advance the well-being of communities throughout our great state,” he said. “Lt. Gov. Oliver was a great partner in our efforts to expand access to high-quality health care for all New Jersey residents, a strategy that has benefitted countless people.”
Garrett specifically mentioned her support of HMH’s John Theurer Cancer Center.
“She was a strong advocate in the fight against cancer and supported the network’s John Theurer Cancer Center’s efforts to become part of the NCI-designated Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center,” he said. “At our historic announcement, she spoke passionately about this designation and finding a cure for cancer.”
Deb Visconi, CEO of Bergen New Bridge Medical Center, said Oliver’s advocacy for causes was second to none — as was her ability to serve as a role model.
“Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver was a role model, mentor and an inspiration to women in New Jersey and across the country, especially women of color,” she said. “She was known as a fierce advocate for women’s equality and a proponent of social justice. Her passing is a tremendous loss to this state, and all of us at the medical center extend our deepest condolences to her family and loved ones.”
University Hospital said Oliver’s work in the Newark community will not be forgotten.
“Lt. Gov. Oliver will be remembered by many for her tireless work to support disenfranchised and underresourced communities throughout the state and her continued advocacy for her hometown city of Newark,” the hospital said in a statement. “The University Hospital community is specifically grateful for her unyielding commitment to supporting its key mission.”
Garrett honored Oliver this way:
“She leaves a rich legacy of fighting for the voiceless and dedicating herself to public service, proudly becoming the first woman of color to serve in a statewide elected office in New Jersey,” he said. “On behalf of Hackensack Meridian Health, we extend our deepest sympathies and prayers to Lt. Gov. Oliver’s family and friends.”
Bennett simply said was so many others feel: “She was an inspiration for women and people of color.”