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Body cam footage shows the backhoe operated by Joshua Gonzalez after police shot the 20-year-old Millville man in the early morning hours Dec. 18 in the Penn Lincoln Mobile Home Park in Vineland.

Supreme Court halts COVID-19 vaccine rule

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court has stopped a major push by the Biden administration to boost the nation’s COVID-19 vaccination rate, a requirement that employees at large businesses get a vaccine or test regularly and wear a mask on the job.

At the same time, the court is allowing the administration to proceed with a vaccine mandate for most health care workers in the U.S. The court’s orders Thursday came during a spike in coronavirus cases caused by the omicron variant.

The court’s conservative majority concluded the administration overstepped its authority by seeking to impose the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s vaccine-or-test rule on U.S. businesses with at least 100 employees. More than 80 million people would have been affected and OSHA had estimated that the rule would save 6,500 lives and prevent 250,000 hospitalizations over six months.

“OSHA has never before imposed such a mandate. Nor has Congress. Indeed, although Congress has enacted significant legislation addressing the COVID–19 pandemic, it has declined to enact any measure similar to what OSHA has promulgated here,” the conservatives wrote in an unsigned opinion.

In dissent, the court’s three liberals argued that it was the court that was overreaching by substituting its judgment for that of health experts. “Acting outside of its competence and without legal basis, the Court displaces the judgments of the Government officials given the responsibility to respond to workplace health emergencies,” Justices Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor wrote in a joint dissent.

President Joe Biden said he was “disappointed that the Supreme Court has chosen to block common-sense life-saving requirements for employees at large businesses that were grounded squarely in both science and the law.”

Biden called on businesses to institute their own vaccination requirements, noting that a third of Fortune 100 companies already have done so.

When crafting the OSHA rule, White House officials always anticipated legal challenges — and privately some harbored doubts that it could withstand them. The administration nonetheless still views the rule as a success at already driving millions of people to get vaccinated and encouraging private businesses to implement their own requirements that are unaffected by the legal challenge.

The OSHA regulation had initially been blocked by a federal appeals court in New Orleans, then allowed to take effect by a federal appellate panel in Cincinnati.

Both rules had been challenged by Republican-led states. In addition, business groups attacked the OSHA emergency regulation as too expensive and likely to cause workers to leave their jobs at a time when finding new employees already is difficult.

The National Retail Federation, the nation’s largest retail trade group, called the Supreme Court’s decision “a significant victory for employers.”

The vaccine mandate that the court will allow to be enforced nationwide scraped by on a 5-4 vote, with Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Brett Kavanaugh joining the liberals to form a majority. The mandate covers virtually all health care workers in the country, applying to providers that receive federal Medicare or Medicaid funding. It affects 10.4 million workers at 76,000 health care facilities as well as home health care providers. The rule has medical and religious exemptions.

Biden said that decision by the court “will save lives.”

In an unsigned opinion, the court wrote: “The challenges posed by a global pandemic do not allow a federal agency to exercise power that Congress has not conferred upon it. At the same time, such unprecedented circumstances provide no grounds for limiting the exercise of authorities the agency has long been recognized to have.” It said the “latter principle governs” in the health care arena.

Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in dissent that the case was about whether the administration has the authority “to force healthcare workers, by coercing their employers, to undergo a medical procedure they do not want and cannot undo.” He said the administration hadn’t shown convincingly that Congress gave it that authority.

The court’s decision came on the same day Biden announced that the government will double to 1 billion the rapid, at-home COVID-19 tests to be distributed free to Americans, along with “high-quality masks,” as he highlighted his efforts to “surge” resources to help the country weather the spike in coronavirus cases.

Biden also announced that starting next week 1,000 military medical personnel will begin deploying across the country to help overwhelmed medical facilities ease staff shortages due to the highly transmissible omicron variant. Speaking at the White House, he said six additional military medical teams will be deployed to Michigan, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio and Rhode Island.

Many facilities are struggling because their workers are in at-home quarantines due to the virus at the same time as a nationwide spike in COVID-19 cases. The new deployments will be on top of other federal medical personnel who have already been sent to states to help with acute shortages.

Biden acknowledged that, “I know we’re all frustrated as we enter this new year” as virus cases reach new heights. But he insisted that it remains “a pandemic of the unvaccinated.”

Both vaccinated and unvaccinated people test positive for the virus, but Biden noted medical figures showing that people are far less likely to suffer serious illness and death if they’ve received a shot: “What happens after that could not be more different.”

Biden’s comments come as his administration’s focus is shifting to easing disruptions from the spike in cases that is also contributing to grocery shortages and flight cancellations, rather than preventing the transmission of the virus.

National Guard steps up for Meadowview staff sidelined by COVID-19

NORTHFIELD — Unlike the usual white and blue nursing gowns traditionally seen throughout the corridors of the Meadowview Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, the halls this week were filled with men and women wearing camouflage.

New Jersey National Guard troops have been stationed at three area long-term care facilities, including Meadowview, as COVID-19 creates staffing shortages.

After Gov. Phil Murphy announced their deployment last week, the Guard members were directed to take a compact certified nursing assistant course before starting their new duties Monday.

Training takes up to five weeks, Meadowview Nursing Director Stacie Bates said, but troop members like Sgt. 1st Class Robert Coyle learned most of the job in about two days.

Despite the demands of the assignment, Meadowview feels like a second home for Coyle.

“I’m in the veterans wing, so it’s great to hear their stories,” said Coyle, of Medford, Burlington County.

In addition to Meadowview, guard members are at two other local facilities — Crest Haven Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, in Middle Township, and Lincoln Specialty Care Center, in Vineland. The area facilities are among 13 currently serving as the temporary homes for about 150 troops, Major Agneta Murnan, public affairs officer for the New Jersey Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, said Wednesday.

About 625 troops overall are on active assignments through Joint Task Force COVID-Guardian, an initiative by the National Guard to assist in the fight against the virus. Besides serving in long-term care facilities, troops are supporting veterans homes and public vaccination sites, Murnan said.

At Meadowview, eight have been at the Dolphin Avenue facility in Northfield since Monday, arriving to help stressed staff left shorthanded by a nearly six-week-long COVID-19 outbreak, with the omicron variant behind the unprecedented caseloads.

The personnel available has changed, but the quality of care hasn’t.

“We’ve been pretty challenged in our staffing,” Bates said, “and we’re so thankful for the National Guard to come in and help us.”

Unfortunately, Bates said, the outbreak has spread to residents. Thankfully, the vaccines have kept cases mild.

Nearly 90% of residents and staff members are fully vaccinated, including a booster shot. Anyone eligible for the booster has gotten it through a monthly clinic Meadowview runs, Bates said.

In addition to the National Guard, other outside agencies have been called to Meadowview to replace staff members out with the coronavirus. Other staff have been asked to work overtime to make sure their residents are covered, Bates said.

Despite the stressful situation, the workers and troops are still pulling through, smiling behind their masks while wheeling their residents around the home and delivering them food.

The state Health Department’s Office of Long-Term Care Resiliency coordinates with the facilities on their staffing situation. If necessary, the troops may stay longer.

The National Guard members are tasked with standing in place of the usual caregivers, whose daily tasks include bathing, performing physical therapy, preparing meals and helping them get around. They’re assigned to each location based on COVID-19 trends in the state’s facilities. If too many staff are out sick, they may be called to help.

Besides personal care, moral support is, of course, a plus.

Many, like Linda Williams, who is originally from Millville, love having the Guard care for her and her friends, some of whom she hasn’t seen since the outbreak forced Meadowview to suspend resident gatherings.

Williams hasn’t been without caregivers since the National Guard arrived, she said.

“Whenever we need them, they’re there Johnny on the spot,” Williams said.

Williams has called Meadowview her home for three months, getting physical therapy to help her walk again. The facility’s liveliness has changed since COVID-19 began spreading among the staff. Communal games and dining have stopped. She still has some fun since Meadowview is doing one-on-one activities.

“Things change on a daily basis,” she said. “You never know what’s going to happen.”

She and others are often left in their rooms to keep them safe, she said. Despite the stress the pandemic has caused her, she said her faith has kept her going.

“God helps me a lot,” she said. “I just think that if you try your best to have a good day, he’ll help you out.”

This image released by Paramount Pictures shows Neve Campbell, left, and Courteney Cox in a scene from "Scream."

AP top story
Murphy signs bill enshrining abortion into NJ state law

TRENTON — Gov. Phil Murphy, anticipating possible changes to the Roe v. Wade ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court, signed a bill Thursday enshrining the right to an abortion into state law.

Murphy signed the measure in the waning days of his first term, fulfilling a campaign pledge made in the lead-up to his reelection victory in November and after it appeared as if the Democrat-led Legislature might fail to advance the bill.

“Regardless of whether or not the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, New Jersey’s position in support of the right to reproductive autonomy will remain clear and unchanged,” Murphy said during a signing ceremony in Teaneck, New Jersey.

The final version of the bill leaves out a requirement for insurance coverage of abortion that some advocates had sought and instead authorizes the state Banking and Insurance Department to study the issue and possibly adopt regulations if a need is discovered.

In addition to abortion rights, the bill also specifically outlines a right to access contraception, as well as to carry a pregnancy to term.

New Jersey joins 14 states and the District of Columbia with statutory protections for abortion, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive rights think tank.

A Supreme Court ruling could come in June in a case in which the court was asked to overturn a nationwide right to abortion that has existed for five decades.

The case has state legislatures across the country responding to the possibility of seismic changes to the 1973 Roe ruling. Republican-led legislatures are ready to further restrict or ban abortions outright, and Democratic-controlled ones seek to ensure access to abortion.

At least 20 states, mostly across the South and Midwest, already have laws that would restrict or ban abortion if the Supreme Court overturns Roe and lets states decide the issue, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

In New Jersey, Murphy had pushed for the bill, but it was stalled in the Democrat-led Legislature as the majority faced voters in November and then reeled from losing six Assembly seats and a net loss of one in the Senate.

“What happened was that sort of everything coalesced around the fact that the Supreme Court has a real chance to weaken or overturn abortion rights, and now was the time to put those statutory protections in place,” said Elizabeth Nash, state policy analyst with Guttmacher.

Republican lawmakers in at least half a dozen states said last year that they planned to introduce legislation modeled after a new Texas law that effectively bans abortion about six weeks after conception. The law is aimed at circumventing the federal courts by leaving enforcement up to individuals rather than the state.

New Jersey Republicans opposed the legislation.

“This bill and the rhetoric we’ve heard from the other side is: any abortion, at any time, for any reason,” said Assembly member Jay Webber this week.

Some Republicans have said they support a woman’s right to get an abortion, most prominently the GOP nominee for governor last year, Jack Ciattarelli, but he opposed early versions of the bill Murphy signed, saying it went too far.

A vocal supporter of abortion rights and self-styled progressive, Murphy extended an olive branch of sorts to abortion opponents on Thursday.

“I hope that we can come together in the greater calling of our faiths to make parenthood an easier safer choice for anyone in search of support,” he said.

Murphy said the signing was in Teaneck because it’s the home of former state Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, who sponsored the legislation before she left office this month.

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State declines mediation in PILOT lawsuit

The next step is oral arguments Feb. 8 before Superior Court Judge Joseph Marczyk, Atlantic County Counsel Jim Ferguson said Thursday.

A bill passed the Assembly and Senate in December and was quickly signed by Gov. Phil Murphy that greatly changed the way casinos pay the equivalent of property taxes, resulting in less funding for the county.

The county sued to stop it from taking effect.

“We’re flabbergasted and very dismayed,” county Executive Dennis Levinson said Thursday, calling the state’s unwillingness to use a neutral mediator “arrogant and incomprehensible.”

Spokespeople for both the governor and Attorney General’s Office declined comment Thursday.

“We’re going to fight. It is going to cost plenty of money,” Levinson said. “They know they violated our consent order that they signed and agreed to. And everyone else knows it.”

The consent order was a settlement in a previous lawsuit against the 2016 PILOT bill and laid out specific payments based on the previous law to run through 2026.

More than $30 million is at stake for county taxpayers, Levinson said, over the next five years.

Last Thursday, Superior Court Judge Joseph Marczyk ordered the state to let him know by Jan. 13 whether it is “agreeable to proceed with mediation” in the case.

Marczyk had previously said he wanted the parties to go into mediation.

The new legislation, which passed both the Senate and the Assembly on Dec. 20 without more than a cursory discussion, removes sports and internet gaming revenues from the calculation of what casinos owe in a basic PILOT.

Murphy signed it into law Dec. 21.

The measure lowers casinos’ payments to an estimated $110 million from $165 million under the previous law.

It gives the county the same amount in 2022 it received in 2021, about $17.5 million, but the 2021 payments were based on depressed casino revenues from 2020 during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns.

The lawsuit is against the state and the governor and was filed by the county and the towns of Somers Point, Hamilton and Egg Harbor townships, Absecon, Ventnor and Weymouth Township.

The county will lose about $4 million a year under the new PILOT law if enacted, the state Office of Legislative Services has estimated.

The county says the annual loss is more like $5 million to $7 million.

Former state Senate President Steve Sweeney sponsored the legislation and said repeatedly four casinos would close if it did not pass. But he never provided proof of that assertion.

A spokesperson for Murphy declined to comment on the pending litigation.

Then-Assemblyman John Armato, D-Atlantic, the original sponsor of the Assembly version of the bill, took his name off it after the November election and voted against it on the Assembly floor.

Also voting against it was then-Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo, D-Atlantic. Armato said he was unable to get enough information on why it was needed, and Mazzeo said it was a bad deal for Atlantic County taxpayers.

The county’s attorneys filed an order to show cause Dec. 22 in Atlantic County Superior Court. The order asked Assignment Judge Julio Mendez to temporarily enjoin the state from enacting into law Senate bill 4007 or Assembly bill 5587, and to set an emergency hearing date to determine whether the bills violate the existing consent order from 2018 and should be permanently blocked from taking effect.

Mendez referred the case to Marczyk, who quickly signed the order to show cause to start the legal process but did not temporarily enjoin the law.

This story is developing. Check back for updates.