13 July 2020
Never has the need been greater than it is today to have more scientists working on public policy. Programs that place scientists into one-year positions in Washington, D.C. have been around for decades, but few states do the same thing. A few years ago, a friend and a scientist also working in politics mentioned to me that California had a program and that NJ should consider something similar. I made a phone call to the wonderful people at the Rutgers University Eagleton Institute of Politics and they jumped at the opportunity to allow young Ph.D.-level scientists to train and work throughout NJ State Government.
The program brings enormous benefits to not only the Science Fellows by building civic skills, deepening their understanding of government, and learning how to navigate political systems, but also the state government by providing the following:
This past Wednesday, July 8, 2020, marked the conclusion of the inaugural year of the Rutgers University Eagleton Institute’s Science and Politics Fellowship. Four scientists completed their work, which was celebrated by a virtual graduation ceremony.
At the graduation ceremony, these four passionate and dedicated people spoke with eloquence and enthusiasm about their work on climate change at the Department of Transportation, newborn screening at the Department of Health, data privacy at the General Assembly Majority Office, and maternal health at the Department of Human Services.
Their accounts filled me with joy and optimism that better governing through science is expanding in NJ and elsewhere.
During my keynote address, I talked about the importance of not just their work, but the evidence-based approach that they took to all of their assignments.
Since the day I became a legislator, it has been a personal goal to find ways to enhance evidence-based decision making in public policy. The circumstances of 2020 have revealed that there has never been more important and urgent time in the history of this country for investing in science and politics. The health and well being of every New Jersey resident is at stake. I am profoundly grateful for Eagleton’s commitment to the cause.
Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker
Aiming to boost adoption of clean energy alternatives and grow the market for fuel cells in New Jersey, legislation (A-741) to establish a 15-member task force within the Board of Public Utilities (BPU) on the use of fuel cell technologies was signed into law by the Governor on Friday.
Fuel cells facilitate the combining of hydrogen and oxygen to make water, and convert the chemical energy into electricity. The cells can be used in all-purpose generators as well as integrated with stationary machinery, specialty vehicles like forklifts, portable floodlights, and motor vehicles giving them broad applications.
Sponsors of the bill now law, Assembly Democrats Gordon Johnson (D-Bergen), Herb Conaway (D-Burlington) and Andrew Zwicker (D-Somerset, Mercer, Middlesex, Hunterdon) released the following joint statement:
“As the applications of fuel cell technology continue to grow, we are looking at an ever-increasing capacity to shift away from fossil fuels and toward better, cleaner power sources. By creating a central task force comprised of cross-sector experts, this measure takes the first step in accelerating New Jersey’s implementation of fuel cell technologies.
“Engaging State departments, local government, industry and the public on the topic of fuel cells, the task force would be largely beneficial in helping develop policy recommendations and a course of regulatory action. If we plan to make New Jersey’s goal of 100 percent clean energy by 2050 a reality, keeping at pace with innovations and integrating clean energy technologies will be critical.”
We need effective contact tracing with privacy protections to open NJ’s economy and save lives.
In NJ, more than 12,000 people in the last three months have died from COVID-19 - more than we lost during all of WWII. During this same time period as Governor Murphy issued his stay-at-home order that shut down all but essential businesses, more than one million people in NJ claimed unemployment and the budget deficit over the next year is now predicted to be close to $10 billion dollars.
During this past week, my committee, the Assembly Science Innovation and Technology Committee, together with the Assembly Community Development and Affairs Committee chaired by Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter held a hearing on one of the key tools needed to reopen NJ’s economy safely: contact tracing.
Contact tracing has been a weapon in the battle to prevent the spread of communicable diseases for decades. According to the World Health Organization, the eradication of smallpox, for example, was achieved in 1979 not by universal immunization, but by exhaustive contact tracing. Diseases for which contact tracing is commonly performed include tuberculosis, vaccine-preventable infections like measles, sexually transmitted infections (including HIV), blood-borne infections, some serious bacterial infections, and novel infections (e.g. SARS-CoV, H1N1, and COVID-19).
Technology plays a crucial role in contact tracing, and as our world has been more technologically advanced, our personal data have become more vulnerable. While NJ has no plans to develop a contact tracing app that we would download on our phones to track our movements, it does intend to use a central database to store contact tracing data in “the cloud.” This information, collected through telephone calls to those suspected of being in close contact with someone that has tested positive for COVID-19, will include your name, ask about how you are feeling, ask about others with whom you may have had close contact, and ask that you quarantine yourself. You will NEVER be asked for money, your social security number, bank information, immigration status, or other personally protected information.
Contact tracing will only work if people willingly participate in the process. And one of the key ways to get that participation is through guarantees of individual privacy, which is why I introduced A4170 that has bipartisan support in the General Assembly. The bill is not about the value of contact tracing or whether it should occur. Rather, the bill focuses on how it should be implemented with an appropriate protection of privacy. This bill provides that public health entities (such as the NJ Department of Health, county and local boards of health) collecting information on an individual for the purposes of contact tracing related to the COVID-19 pandemic, may only use the data for the purposes of completing contact tracing. Furthermore, these public health entities must delete the personal information once contact tracing is complete.
The more we protect a person’s privacy, the more willing they will be to participate honestly in contact tracing. People have to feel comfortable in responding to contact tracers.
This measure also requires that the Commissioner of Health publish website guidelines regarding how collected data may be used and how its security and confidentiality must be ensured. A mechanism where the public can submit comments over a 30-day period must be provided before any NJ Health Department guidance can be finalized.
As NJ continues to reopen and we spend more time with friends, family, and others, we must do everything we can to minimize the spread of this horrible virus that has killed so many. Ensuring that contact tracing is done with the involvement of local community members in a sensitive and caring way yet with strong privacy protections in place is essential.
ZWICKER, BENSON & MUKHERJI MEASURE TO INCREASE AWARENESS FOR VOTE-BY-MAIL AND BOOST EFFICIENCY CLEARS ASSEMBLY PANEL
(TRENTON) – As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact New Jersey, the July primary election will be conducted predominantly by mail with each registered Democrat and Republican automatically receiving a ballot and all other registered voters receiving an application for a mail-in ballot. If the pandemic continues through the fall, more voters may choose to vote by mail than in past elections.
To increase public awareness of vote-by-mail and implement safeguards to improve the system’s efficiency, legislation sponsored by Assembly Democrats Andrew Zwicker, Daniel Benson and Raj Mukherji was approved by the Assembly State and Local Government Committee on Wednesday.
“It’s critical that we balance the interest of voting by mail with a system that is both fair and efficient,” said Zwicker (D-Hunterdon, Mercer, Middlesex, Somerset). “Under this legislation, the particular goal is to ensure every person registered and able to vote has the information they need. It works to ensure the voice of our electorate continues to be heard, whether people choose to vote by mail or to head to the polls. As the coronavirus pandemic has shown us, getting VBM right and getting mailed-in ballots properly counted is vital.”
The measure (A-3591) would require the New Jersey Secretary of State to raise public awareness for vote by mail by preparing informational posters for use at all polling places; include information with mail-in ballots for how the voter can check the status of their ballot; and provide educational materials to county board of elections employees on the standards for acceptance and rejection of mail-in ballots.
Under current law, county boards of elections are required to retain voted mail-in ballots for two years. This bill would clarify that ballots received 48 hours after the polls close, along with their envelopes, should also be retained for two years. It would also prohibit the rejection of mail-in ballots that have missing or insufficient glue on the outer or inner envelopes.
“Voting is among our most important rights and responsibilities in this country, and it should be easily accessible to all,” said Benson (D-Mercer, Middlesex). “The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the need for us to raise awareness for vote-by-mail and make improvements to ensure every vote is fairly counted.”
“Voter apathy and low turnout are grave threats to our democracy, and even more so during a pandemic. Expansion of vote-by-mail and ensuring its fairness and efficiency can help combat those threats,” said Mukherji (D-Hudson). “By allowing our citizens who may not be able to make it to the ballot box in person, from people with disabilities to workers without paid time off to the elderly or immunocompromised, we must allow their voices to be heard. It is imperative that we increase awareness and ensure fair counting in preparation for a surge in mailed ballots.”
Additionally under the bill, every mail-in ballot that does not have a postmark date but is received by a county board by the United States Postal Service within 48 hours after the polls close should be considered valid and must be canvassed.
The measure now heads to the Assembly Speaker for further consideration.
The Assembly Science, Innovation and Technology and Assembly Community Development and Affairs committees joined together on Tuesday to hear testimony on the importance of contact tracing to contain the spread of COVID-19 and gain more insight into what is needed to safeguard the privacy of data collected.
Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker (D-Hunterdon, Mercer, Middlesex, Somerset), chair of the Assembly Science, Innovation and Technology committee released the following statement:
“Contact tracing has long been one of our most reliable and effective tools to combat the spread of communicable disease. In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, it serves as a core component of our public health response.
“Providing health officials information about the networks of people who have come into contact with a positive individual who can then be alerted of their risk for infection, it serves a critical function in breaking chains of transmission, curbing resurgence and saving lives.
“The challenge in front us in New Jersey is building on public trust so that more people are willing to stay on the phone when a contact tracer calls them and share information.
“As heard today, to build this trust we must address the divergent needs of our communities and clearly communicate around what contact tracing is, how New Jersey is approaching it and what exactly is being done to protect the data collected.
“The implication of contact tracing for our privacy is a critical piece. Without the assurance that data is being collected, used and stored solely for the purpose of contact tracing and only for the length of time it’s needed, we limit the ability of our contact tracing program to work.”
Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter (D-Bergen, Passaic), chair of the Assembly Community Development and Affairs, issued the following statement:
“Abundant in information, this was a conversation that needed to take place as we enter and encourage contact tracing throughout the state.
“Community and data privacy concerns can be obstacles to using this effective tool in flattening the curve of Covid-19. The benefits of contract tracers working in partnership with us to limit the exposure is critical during this season of the pandemic.
“We know today that communities of color and our senior population has been disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 outbreak. In order to protect public health going forward in these communities and throughout the state, we must all be activated to engage in reporting cases, answering calls from contact tracers and, subsequently, accessing the care we need in a timely manner.
“Hopefully, this will be the first of many dialogues on contact tracing as we begin to reopen New Jersey.”
“As a Legislator, I have to push past my comfort zones and challenge the societal injustices that we have accepted as the norm.”
Last week and this past weekend, like many of you I watched the news coverage of blatant and abhorrent acts of racism across the country. This racial violence, which ranged from false accusations against Christian Cooper to the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis Police, is not isolated. It was preceded by the deaths of Breonna Taylor and the many others whose names we’ve memorialized and the ones that never make it to the national news.
Societal racism is rooted so deep that there are fellow American citizens who have to worry every day whether the color of their skin will determine whether they live or die. Racism rooted so deep that access to high-quality education, access to jobs, and access to clean air and water is unjustly dependent upon the color of your skin. Where a virus that doesn’t discriminate on who it infects disproportionately kills black and brown people because of unequal access to healthcare and unequal distribution of wealth and employment. This racism is so pervasive that every day there is the physical and mental weight of being perpetually disrespected, dehumanized, and marginalized.
I have waited to respond to these most recent events, because I wanted to center on the voices of individuals who need to be heard and who have been screaming out for change for generations. I stand with those who are protesting as they continue to be forced to prove their humanity.
It is also important for me to acknowledge that these events are far bigger than my feelings. I have to do more than the performative acts of “standing in solidarity” or writing statements, because that won’t effectuate real change. As a Legislator, I have to push past my comfort zones and challenge the societal injustices that we have accepted as the norm.
While I may not be able to write legislation that changes how people think, I will work with my colleagues to create new public policies that fundamentally dismantle a system that perpetuates racism and education and economic inequalities.
Because the alternative is unacceptable.
REYNOLDS-JACKSON, QUIJANO & ZWICKER BILL REQUIRING COVERAGE FOR CERTAIN PRESCRIPTION REFILLS DURING EMERGENCY NOW LAW
In an effort to ensure New Jersey residents are able to maintain a supply of the medicines they need during the COVID-19 pandemic, Assembly members Verlina Reynolds-Jackson, Annette Quijano and Andrew Zwicker sponsor a bill mandating health insurance coverage of certain prescription refills during an emergency. The legislation was signed into law by the Governor on Friday.
The law (formerly bill A-3970/S-2344) requires Medicaid and other health insurance carriers offering a health benefits plan in New Jersey that provides coverage for pharmacy services or prescription drugs, to cover refills that give individuals at least a 30-day supply of prescription medicines or a 90-day supply of maintenance medications, in the event a public health emergency or state of emergency is declared.
Insurance carriers will have to cover a refill that fulfills the minimum 30-day requirement even if the person has not yet reached their scheduled refill date. In addition, no fees can be applied for the delivery of these medicines.
Upon the bill becoming law, the three sponsors issued the following statements:
“Whenever our state is facing an emergency situation that will go on for some time, it’s important to make sure residents have access to the medicines they need throughout the crisis,” said Assemblywoman Reynolds-Jackson (D-Hunterdon, Mercer). “Especially in the event of an infectious pandemic, limiting the number of times an individual has to go out in public to obtain the essential supplies they need can help slow the spread of the virus.”
“By mandating coverage of prescription refills even before the usual refill date, we can help residents stock up on critical medications at fewer intervals,” said Assemblywoman Quijano (D-Union) “This will allow them to stay home for longer periods of time without having to face adverse health effects from either a lack of medicine or increased exposure to the virus.”
“As legislators, we have the responsibility to help make sure New Jersey residents are taken care of during public health emergencies such as the one we are currently facing,” said Assemblyman Zwicker (D-Hunterdon, Mercer, Middlesex, Somerset).“This law is one way we can help keep more residents safe during these uncertain times.”
By Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker
In the face of the global coronavirus pandemic, our health and safety remain the No. 1 priority. When it is safe to do so we will need to reopen our state, restart our economy and get people back to work.
As Gov. Phil Murphy has made clear, the way to do this is by taking a data-driven approach that relies on social distancing to “flatten the curve,” using rapid, accurate, and widespread testing to identify those positive for the virus. The ability to then identify others that have been near this person for a period of time, known as “contact tracing” is essential.
In the absence of a vaccine, contact tracing and self-isolation are how we most effectively stop new infections, meaningfully reduce hospitalizations and fatalities, and eventually reopen our economy to restore jobs and get back to business as usual with the greatest amount of safety.
Efforts are already underway to significantly ramp up our ability to perform traditional, in-person contact interviews of those positive for the virus. This approach works by having teams of people, working with local health officials, available to contact family, friends and co-workers possibly at risk because a person testing positive identified being in contact with them.
Leveraging technology to support contact tracing done manually by people will be critical to boosting the accuracy and real-time collection of information on potential new infections.
Using GPS data or the Bluetooth functionality on our smartphones, technology-driven contact tracing would then fill any remaining information gaps by identifying those at risk for infection simply because they were in the same place at the same time as someone who tested positive. Effectively, this would enable strangers who shared the same line at the grocery store or were in close proximity on the same train to be notified of a potential risk, tested and subsequently isolated if found positive so the cycle of community spread can be broken.
Major tech companies and universities in the United States are already working together on this approach, developing the technological foundation that will be integrated into apps under development now. Such tools would assign unique but anonymous IDs to peoples’ phones enabling automatic detection of close proximity interactions, taking place for a certain length of time, with individuals who have tested positive for COVID-19. This information would then be used to alert people of possible exposure and shared with local health officials to inform our public health response.
Successful implementation of such technology, however, relies on the extent to which a majority of the roughly 80% of Americans owning a smartphone are willing to opt-in. And, as leading experts in the privacy community have pointed out, the success of voluntary participation heavily depends on strong privacy safeguards with guarantees that any use of data will only be for contact tracing purposes and that stored data would be deleted once the COVID-19 crisis is over.
Data privacy has long been an issue before the coronavirus. Combining people and tech-driven contact tracing approaches undoubtedly gives us the greatest chance to ease restrictions safely, but to see their success our data privacy does not need to be the tradeoff. With public trust and confidence guiding people’s decision to opt-in to the technology, government and private industry have the incentive to balance the priorities of data privacy and the public’s health and safety equally. In no way does one objective have to compromise the other.
Recognizing this, companies are already promising to set the highest standards for privacy when it comes to the responsible use of our data for contact tracing. Ensuring they are held accountable to these standards of data protection promised at the outset will largely depend on crafting thoughtful, deliberative and responsible public policy.
This is the challenge in front of us and we must act now. New Jerseyans have always been strong and resourceful. This time is no different.
This opinion piece was published in-print by the Star Ledger on April 29, 2020 and online by NJ.com on May 2, 2020: https://www.nj.com/opinion/2020/05/balancing-the-priorities-of-public-health-privacy.html
MUKHERJI, SPEARMAN & ZWICKER BILL TO INCREASE CASH SUPPORT PAYMENTS FOR RECIPIENTS OF PUBLIC ASSISTANCE RECEIVES FINAL LEGISLATIVE APPROVAL
To ensure the most economically vulnerable residents in the state are supported during a state of emergency, the Senate advanced legislation on Thursday and it now heads to the Governor’s desk.
The bill (A-3858) would require the Commissioner of Human Services to issue supplemental cash assistance payments, under certain circumstances, to those within the Work First New Jersey program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and the special supplemental food program for women, infants and children.
The bill sponsors, Assembly Democrats Raj Mukherji (D-Hudson), William Spearman (D-Camden, Gloucester) and Andrew Zwicker (D-Somerset, Mercer, Middlesex, Hunterdon), issued the following statement:
“Food shortages caused by COVID-19 could have a devastating impact on families who rely on public assistance programs to put food on the table. Too many living paycheck to paycheck are grappling with what do if they are unable to afford extra stocks of food and basic supplies at home. Making sure these families, in times of special vulnerability like a pandemic, have the extra financial support they need is both critical and just.”
The bill was approved by the full Assembly 53-0-12 on Monday March 16, 2020.