Discussing the importance of leadership, partnerships and innovation throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, New Jersey Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli graciously accepted the Sol J. Barer Award at BioNJ’s 29th annual dinner meeting and awards presentation last night.
Overseeing the state’s healthcare system, and with a core mission of helping people in New Jersey live long healthy lives, Persichilli said that mission-driven leadership, rooted in a foundation of strong values “is the engine that inspires all of us. … That is what I experienced repeatedly throughout the pandemic.”
Persichilli said it was difficult to recall the dark days of the pandemic, a little more than two years ago, but within a matter of weeks, she said New Jersey hospitals were dealing with the worst influx of patients in state history.
“I worked through the AIDS epidemic, the anthrax scare, the Ebola threat and the measles outbreak, but never experienced anything like [COVID]. We needed to be overprepared and told hospitals to stop all elective admissions, double their ICU bed capacities, set up tents outside of their facilities to isolate patients. … I was asking hospital CEOs to do something unfathomable; to basically set up a war zone,” Persichilli recalled.
“We got hit hard. The trajectory of case increases was something we never experienced in our lifetime. We went from having 100 COVID patients to 8,300 in four weeks. … We had no personal protective equipment (PPE); the state’s stockpile was scarce, and the nation’s strategic stockpile was empty,” Persichilli recalled.
Everyone was leading in ambiguity at the start of the pandemic, she said. “That’s a difficult challenge for any leader to have. In ambiguity, what is needed is leadership with vision. Our vision was to protect as many New Jerseyans as possible, and that seemed daunting at times,” Persichilli explained.
Early on, she said that she realized success would be dependent on the “engagement of many.” That engagement included: hospitals; institutions of higher education such as Rutgers and Princeton universities for developing a COVID saliva test and a ventilator for mass scale distribution, respectively; and the development of vaccines and other related life-saving drugs from companies such as Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer, Novartis and Sanofi, Persichilli pointed out, adding that “[everyone] worked arduously to bring life-saving vaccines to the world market … and none of this would have been possible without the courage of individuals willing to participate in clinicals trials that were necessary to prove [vaccine] effectiveness and safety.”
As a healthcare leader, Persichilli said she had to decide everyday how she was going to handle the crisis. “It was by being confident, inquisitive, sometimes stern, open to jest, and calm even when on edge,” she explained.
She gave a heartfelt thanks to the audience and BioNJ for receiving the Sol J. Barer Award. She also gave credit to everyone in the audience who played a role in fighting the pandemic, saying: “Our work is not done. … We have promises to keep and miles to go, but we all know that without vision, people perish. Without innovation, there is not progress. Without leadership, there is no success.
“The legacy for all of you who have participated in this great pandemic of 2020-2022 is that through your work, you are not just living through history, you are making history. You all brought hope for a future that is better than the present. I, for one, will be forever grateful to all of you.”
The 29th annual BioNJ dinner, held at the Hilton East Brunswick, was the organization’s first live dinner since February 2020. BioNJ President and CEO Debbie Hart told the audience of life science professionals that “because of all of you in this room, and others like you, we are able to return to a sense of normalcy. You are the reason why we are here tonight.”
Numerous life science firms received Innovation Awards last night for their 2020-2021 FDA approvals. The Heart of BioNJ Award was given to numerous individuals for their roles in fighting COVID.
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