No. 1: Judith Persichilli

NJBIZ STAFF//March 29, 2021

No. 1: Judith Persichilli

Health Care Power 50

NJBIZ STAFF//March 29, 2021

The woman who needs no introduction” has been a fixture at news briefings conducted by Gov. Phil Murphy and other top state health officials update the public on just where things stand with the pandemic. That role earned the state’s health commissioner the number two spot on the NJBIZ 2021 Power 100 2021 list just over a month ago.

The parameters of the pandemic are changing quickly, and Persichilli oversees the state’s response. Thanks to a collaboration between New Jersey drugmakers Johnson & Johnson and Merck, the Biden and Murphy administrations expect a surge in vaccine supply in early April, allowing for a much faster reopening from pandemic restrictions.

The hope is that enough people will be vaccinated in the state that life – and business – can resume a large semblance of normalcy this summer.

Running parallel, the presence of several new variants threaten to reverse considerable progress the state has made on containing the pandemic. The B117 variant, first detected in the U.K., could become the dominant strain across the nation this spring. The emergence of the more infectious mutation creates what public health experts characterize as a race between the variants and the vaccine.

Persichilli’s agency will handle the state’s inoculation efforts — part of what could be the largest public health undertaking in U.S. history. And the department will track just where new variants spread and what it means for the state’s reopening.

The Health Department has played key roles in similar areas thus far in the pandemic: hospital capacity, vaccine roll-out to date and the health of the state’s health care infrastructure. She’s been a key player in New Jersey’s response to the pandemic, and a face of those efforts.

A career nurse, Persichilli previously served as the state-appointed monitor to oversee the finances and other housekeeping of the troubled University Hospital in Newark. She essentially swapped places with Shereef Elnahal, who left his post as health commissioner to become University Hospital’s chief executive officer.

The seas were calm when her appointment was announced in June 2019. Now, her department serves as a focal point for the state’s hospitals that have handled the brunt of the pandemic. Hospitalizations surged to over 8,000 COVID-19 patients at the height of the first wave, and currently thousands of people are hospitalized due to the virus.

Under Persichilli’s watch the state’s health care industry was repurposed to deal with the public health emergency. That included a three-month ban on elective surgeries, which raised concerns among medical professionals. And it meant the dramatic expansion of bed capacity and a desperately needed supply of ventilators, masks, gloves and other personal protective equipment.

The state’s public health efforts, with Persichilli in the lead, avoided the worst-case scenarios and now turn to finally ending the outbreak.