On Super Bowl Sunday, Judy Persichilli was on an emergency call with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“It was just before the kickoff when I learned that the next day, Feb. 3, we could expect 350 travelers who had passed through China to land at Newark Liberty International Airport,” the state health commissioner said.
Her task: to comply with an executive order from Gov. Phil Murphy that would establish a new coronavirus task force and institute new screening measures at the airport for incoming flights from China.
Persichilli had been state health commissioner for only about six months, the first nurse to hold that position. The New Brunswick native, however, was up for the challenge.
“I got off the phone and worked all night to do what we had to do,” she said.
This is the sort of moment Persichilli had been working toward her whole life, ever since she decided she wanted to be a nurse so she could help people.
Her mother was a legal secretary and her father worked in a factory, and she studied hard at St. Peter's High School on Somerset Street to put that dream into motion.
On her way to becoming the top health official in New Jersey, there was a stint as the executive vice president of Saint Peter’s hospital, where she was born.
And although there's no How to Manage a Pandemic 101 listed in the Rutgers course catalog, she said is using the lessons learned at the state university as she approaches the COVID-19 outbreak.
“Before Rutgers, I went to St. Francis School of Nursing in Trenton for my diploma, and I like to say that’s where I learned how to care,” she said. “Besides caring, the program at Rutgers taught me how to be curious — in terms of research, the underpinnings of what nurses do, the importance of using evidence in caring for patients, and also to consider what’s happening out in the community in addition to within the hospital.”
Persichilli’s training as a nurse also set her up for the kind of front-line leadership.
“The first thing to realize is that nurses are always on the front lines,” she said. “Every day, they put aside their own burdens and come into the workplace no matter how scared they are. Nurses run toward the fire, not away.”
Especially now, with the virus often leaving patients isolated and separated from their loved ones, “it’s the nurses who become patients’ families, whom patients rely on 100%,” she said. “We cry when we lose a patient, rejoice when one comes through, then turn around and do it all again.”
That kind of resiliency helps keep Persichilli going during long days in her office in Trenton, even as so many others work from home.
“I have to come in — we’re setting up field hospitals and alternative care sites, making sure hospitals have enough ventilators, helping them handle the surge of cases in the northern part of the state,” she said. “And of course, I stay six feet away from people, keep hand sanitizer on my desk — and use it frequently—and ask as many people as possible to work remotely.”
Her days are a mix of digging for the answers she needs and tracking the latest statistics on deaths and positive diagnoses as she battles to keep New Jersey informed and prepared, now and for the future.
“Life as we know it has changed — economically, how we think about health and how we relate to one another,” she said. “Human beings have always found solace from other human beings, but now we have to connect with people in a different way. As Governor [Phil] Murphy says, we all need to practice not just social distancing but also social solidarity.”
Murphy has taken to calling Persichilli “The Woman Who Needs No Introduction” during their almost daily COVID-19 press conferences. He will turn to her several times during each briefing to verify facts or interpret data.
In return, Persichilli turns to her family for support and her colleagues in the state Department of Health for a little levity in the face of a pandemic.
“I’m surrounded by people who find a way to laugh every day, while being extraordinarily productive,” she said.
Meanwhile, she has confidence in the resiliency of New Jerseyans — her people.
“I’ve been a New Jerseyan my whole life,” she said. “We will come through this journey together.”