Persichilli, the state health commissioner, has become a familiar face in the state as the woman who calmly announces how many people have tested positive and died of COVID-19 disease each day. Behind the scenes, she is the health official who has been running the state’s day-to-day battle against the virus.
But at age 71, Persichilli is squarely in the age range that experts are warning to be most cautious.
“Are you worried,” I ask, “that you’ll get the coronavirus eventually?”
“I’m definitely going to get it. We all are,” Persichilli says matter-of-factly. “I’m just waiting.”
It will probably be mild. She’ll feel sick for a few days, then hopefully get better, she says. It may not be this month or this year. But, she’s studied all the coronavirus pandemic algorithms and consulted the experts.
It’s coming for her — and me. And you, she fears.
The question now is how to best get New Jersey ready, she says.
Persichilli, a nurse and veteran hospital executive, doesn’t throw disaster scenarios around lightly. As the state’s highest-ranking health official, she has been thinking about COVID-19 disease for as long as anyone in New Jersey. She convened the first meeting with her staff on Jan. 24 to discuss what they saw happening in Wuhan, China.
They began sketching out the first draft of a disaster plan that day in this room where Persichilli is standing — the 8th floor conference room in the state Department of Health building in Trenton.
“It seemed that we were being cautious. We are really proud of ourselves. We said let’s get our emergency preparedness plan. Let’s get it documented. Let’s make sure it gets to the governor’s office and that they know what we’re doing,” Persichilli says.
At the time, the state health department was planning for the coronavirus in New Jersey to be similar to the last H1N1 flu outbreak. Serious, but not stunning.
Persichilli and her staff learned on Feb. 3 they had their first hint of the coronavirus in New Jersey — a woman flying into Newark Liberty International Airport from China with symptoms. The traveller was quarantined for 14 days, then sent home.
Now, just a few weeks later, Persichilli has appeared at more than a dozen news conferences announcing a dramatic rise in coronaviruses cases and deaths every day. Her calm demeanor as she’s read the numbers hasn’t wavered, even as the total cases began to skyrocket.
The 8th floor conference room has turned into Persichilli’s crisis management team command central — with a giant bottle of green hand sanitizer perched in the center of the long table.
Poster size pieces of paper line three walls with handwritten plans and brainstorming ideas. On this day, there is a rough plan to pair up large and small hospitals to share expertise, an idea to turn empty schools into makeshift daycare centers for the children of health care workers and notes on hopes to distribute self-administered testing kits to the homes of New Jerseyans.
Most of the lists on the walls are centered on this week’s two big goals — setting up drive-thru testing sites and getting more hospital beds ready for the expected surge in critical cases.
Persichilli, a former ICU nurse who grew up in a working-class Middlesex County family, is trying to be the calm at the center of this swirling storm even though she’s only been health commissioner less than a year.
“All of my experiences through the years have prepared me to be here at this point in time,” she says. “There’s a reason for it. There’s a reason for it.”
Born in New Brunswick, Persichilli grew up in the small suburb of Dunellen as one of four children. Her mother was a legal secretary. Her father, a World War II veteran, worked in a leather goods factory in Perth Amboy.
Persichilli and her twin sister have an older sister and a younger brother. Their Catholic parents were focused on education, she said. They sent the kids to Saint Peter’s High School in New Brunswick, a Catholic school then known for its rigorous academics.
Persichilli, who said she always felt drawn to nursing, went to St. Francis Hospital School of Nursing in Trenton. She graduated in 1968 and happily began a career as an intensive care nurse, working with the most critical patients.
She met her husband, Anthony Persichilli, in those early years in Trenton, and the pair both began to see their careers rise.
Her husband worked at AT&T for 31 years in various human resources positions before becoming a vice president at Prudential Financial. Along the way, he was elected mayor of their adopted hometown, Pennington, and became the Mercer County borough’s longest serving mayor before retiring in 2018.
Meanwhile, Persichilli earned her bachelor’s degree in nursing from Rutgers University and a master’s from Rider University as she got bigger and bigger jobs in hospital administration.
She found herself often as the first woman and the first nurse in a succession of hospital administration posts in an industry dominated by male executives. But, she says, she always knew her background working with ICU patients in life and death situations gave her an edge.
“It always made sense to me as a young nurse that individuals with clinical knowledge are in the best position to run hospitals,” Persichilli said.
She went on to become CEO at St. Francis Medical Center in Trenton, where she had earned her nursing degree, then head of Catholic Health East and and president emerita when Catholic Health East and Trinity Health merged in 2013.
Along the way, she earned a reputation for being an unflappable administrator, showing the same sense of calm she showed earlier in her career when she cared for the most dire cases in the hospital as an intensive care nurse.
She was semi-retired when Gov. Phil Murphy chose her as the independent monitor of University Hospital in Newark after the state-owned hospital got failing marks for safety and went through a series of other management controversies.
Persichilli’s work getting University Hospital back on track led to Murphy selecting her as his health commissioner last June. But, within a month of her selection, her husband, Anthony, died of complications after a fall. He was 76.
He died before she officially took the health commissioner job. He would have no idea of the challenges that would lie ahead for his wife in just a few months as she navigated the coronavirus outbreak while still mourning her husband of 49 years.
“We were lucky,” Persichilli said, tears filling her eyes. “We had a relationship that certainly now, in retrospect, people would be envious of.”
As the coronavirus pandemic has unfolded, Persichilli has found herself getting up around 4:30 or 5 a.m. to scan the overnight news and emails and sketch out the battle plan for the day. She gets into the office around 8 a.m., brings together her crisis team around 9 a.m. and begins the arduous task of gathering the coronavirus test results and death reports from around the state.
She usually presents the numbers at a 2 p.m. news conference with Murphy, who has jokingly referred to her as one of the most famous faces in New Jersey these days.
Persichilli’s presentations have not always gone smoothly. She has misspoken occasionally at the televised media briefings, and reporters and critics have questioned why her department failed in the early days of the outbreak to release more information about the hometowns and movements of people who had tested positive for COVID-19, so others would know if they had been exposed.
Health care workers and union representatives have also questioned whether Persichilli and her department have moved fast enough to secure masks and other protective equipment for doctors, nurses and other people on the front lines.
But union leaders have still given credit to Persichilli for doing a good job.
“New Jersey is in good hands during the COVID-19 crisis with Commissioner Persichilli leading the New Jersey Department of Health. Commissioner Persichilli is the first nurse to ever serve in this leading role and we are proud of her leadership during these challenging times,” said Debbie White, a fellow nurse and president of Health Professionals and Allied Employees.
Others have also given Persichilli good marks for the grace she’s shown handling the crisis, so far, when less experienced leaders might have panicked.
“The communication, the collaboration, the responsiveness have been amazing,” Robert Garrett, CEO of Hackensack Meridian Health, the state’s largest hospital network, said at a news conference Thursday. “I could not think of a better person to be our health commissioner at this very, very difficult time.”
State Sen. Joseph Vitale, D-Middlesex, chairman of the Senate health committee, said Persichilli’s long history in New Jersey health care has been invaluable.
“I have known and worked with Judy for several years. First, serving on my Health Care Reform Working Group and now as commissioner,” Vitale said. “We are fortunate that she is leading the response.”
Linda Schwimmer, head of the New Jersey Health Care Quality Institute, said Persichilli has always had a steady leadership style and that hasn’t changed when faced with a crisis no one predicted.
“I know she will work tirelessly — and creatively — to save lives and to support those on the front lines of this pandemic,” Schwimmer said.
Persichilli admits she doesn’t know when — or how — the coronavirus pandemic is going to end. She credits her staff, which has been working the same long hours as her even though many have families at home, with keeping her from feeling lonely as coronavirus continues to keep her working seven days a week.
From the death of her husband to her appointment to the Murphy administration to her unexpected role leading in a statewide war against a virus, it has been a surreal year, she says.
How will she know when things are getting back to normal?
“We’ll know that this particular crisis is over when someone asks me about vaping,” Persichilli says with a tired smile, referring to the health issue that she thought was going to be her most-high-profile challenge when she took the job.