Early this year, experts within the New Jersey Department of Health began reviewing social media posts emerging out of China’s Hubei province, launching careful daily monitoring of the progress of the Covid-19 outbreak. On March 18 and 21, respectively, Governor Phil Murphy ordered schools to close and residents to stay home.
Embedded in the state’s response to the pandemic is Henri Hammond-Paul MPA ’19, a senior advisor with the N.J. Department of Health. In this Q&A, he provides an overview of the progression of the state’s actions, its highest priorities, long-term policy considerations, and how his Princeton education prepared him for his role in this crisis.
Prior to arriving at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Hammond-Paul worked in crisis management at New York University’s Langone Medical Center, focusing on increasing resiliency to manmade and natural shocks and stresses. He has also held various positions overseas with the U.N. World Food Programme, where he focused on humanitarian assistance and food security concerns in countries affected by natural disasters and conflicts. He began his career as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Paraguay.
Q. When did you and your team begin planning in earnest for a robust COVID-19 response? What did the earliest efforts look like?
Hammond-Paul: To start, I work for a branch of the N.J. Department of Health called the Division of Public Health Infrastructure, Laboratories, and Emergency Preparedness. My boss is the assistant commissioner for that division, and, within that division, we house the Office of Disaster Resilience, the state’s public health and environmental laboratories, and the Office of Emergency Medical Services — basically all things disaster, emergencies, and a lot of the virology associated with infectious diseases and bioterrorism fall under my team. Under the Office of Disaster Resilience, we host a number of planners whose responsibility is to write crisis management and response plans, such as plans for tackling a pandemic flu, Ebola, and Zika. In addition, we have a team called the Medical Counter Measures Bureau that plans for disbursement of the Strategic National Stockpile. While we maintain a high level of preparedness the entire year, we began monitoring the progression of Covid-19 in early January 2020, with experts on our team monitoring social media coming out of Hubei province. Over the course of January, we ramped up and formed an internal task force within the department, and on February 3, Governor Phil Murphy created a statewide task force, which really kicked the state response into a high gear.
Q. With which aspects of New Jersey’s response have you been most involved? What goes into reacting to a situation that changes by the second?
Hammond-Paul: Recapping the past few months makes me realize how prolonged this crisis has been. In late January and early February, when President Trump put the travel ban in place against non-U.S. citizens arriving from China and when China had their own borders on lockdown, I was working on policies regarding ports of entry into New Jersey. We were thinking about individuals who were arriving in New Jersey who might be flagged as high-risk. Working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Division of Global Migration and Quarantine, my colleagues and I had to figure out how to house, provide wraparound services, and configure transportation for high-risk arrivals. Later in the month, once community spread started to show up in the United States, everything shifted. We began looking at school closures and meeting with the Department of Education, as well as association representatives within the school sector such as school nurses’ associations and the janitorial staff association. We were working to develop the criteria and steps for closing schools.
Since then, the virus has sunk its roots into our communities. Now we’re focused on big supply and demand resource issues for the health care sector — sourcing of personal protective equipment (PPE), staffing shortages, bed shortages – trying to match whatever supply we can find with the demand that is overwhelming. From sourcing of surplus health care professionals to backfill into places where they’re needed, to helping figure out parts of the logistics for expanding hospitals, every state is affected and strapped for resources. There just aren’t enough ventilators and PPE to go around. States have really taken on their share of the responsibility, and it’s been amazing to see what they have been able to accomplish given some voids in federal leadership.
Now that we are three-and-a-half months into the pandemic, I have come to see my main role in this response as being a broker, connecting people who need information across a wide spectrum of agencies and stakeholders with the people who have information, or who have the resources, or the data. I also serve as a bit of a translator, helping explain data analyses to various agency principals. If there are two types of “Woos” (Woodrow Wilson School alumni) – data gurus and generalists — I am the latter.
Q. States have had to rapidly implement and revise health policies in response to the crisis. What are some of the top measures New Jersey has put in place or revised?
Hammond-Paul: In New Jersey, Gov. Murphy has issued a suite of executive orders, many of which have been very specific to health care policy. These include making Covid-19 testing free of charge to New Jerseyans and expanding the role the insurance industry would typically play. Many of the policies we have put in place have been to remove some of the traditional roadblocks in government so we can expedite our response, from purchasing PPE to establishing social distancing policies. Government is intentionally slow and deliberative (and for good reasons in many cases); in a crisis, however, you need to move fast and so we must create ways to help this large, deliberative institution become nimbler and more adaptive. This means removing siloed roles and responsibilities and bringing agencies and principals into a single location so we can make decisions quickly; it means thinking about how we can engage with private sector partners to fill gaps in our skillsets; it means thinking about how technology can help enable our response. In practice, this has meant revising narrow policies and regulations about health care credentialing, licensing, and procurement, and getting health care workers to be able to practice cross state lines.
There also is a balance of thinking about what we need right now versus what we need in the long-term. For example, the needs of vulnerable populations are acute. About a month ago, I helped to set up a vulnerable populations' working group to think about their needs in two separate ways: one to three weeks and two to six months. One acute need right now is where symptomatic homeless individuals who do not need hospitalization can be housed to recover. Where can they be placed so they are safe and treated with dignity? Another side of this balance of immediate needs versus long-term needs is with surge capacity in our health care facilities. In the short term, we are focused on making sure our hospitals have enough beds, staff, and PPE so they can treat the large number of critically ill patents. In the long-term, we have to be thinking about what the “new normal” is for our health care systems and our economy; we need to be thinking about what kinds of investments will be needed to make sure we are resilient to similar disruptions in the future. This is called the “preparedness paradox” – once things start to get better, we forget all of the things that we wished we had had when it was really bad. I think the magnitude of this pandemic will mitigate that risk of us forgetting how important sustained preparedness investments are. Hopefully.
Q. You have previously worked for NYU Langone Health, the U.N. World Food Programme, and in the Peace Corps in Paraguay on rural health. Are you drawing on aspects of those experiences to inform your work today?
Hammond-Paul: All of my prior experiences have been in different operating environments, so I’ve been trying to bring in tools and perspectives from all of the layers of service in which I’ve worked. Specifically, I think I received some very useful insights into the health care industry by working at NYU. At the U.N., I learned a lot about cross-cultural work and managing diverse stakeholders, people with very different goals and interests. This maps very closely to what you encounter in state government. You have all of these different agencies and all of these different politicians representing different constituencies, and you have to figure out a way to balance everyone’s competing priorities. My goal right now with the N.J. Department of Health is to keep our health care system from not completely collapsing and to keep New Jerseyans safe, in as dignified a way possible. That’s very different from the efforts of the Division of Banking and Insurance or the Department of Corrections or the State Police. Everyone has their own goals, most of which relate to keeping New Jerseyans safe, but in different ways. Stakeholder management has been a very important skill.
Q. What aspects of your Woodrow Wilson School graduate education are you relying on most during this time?
Hammond-Paul: I think there’s a couple things. The first is the alumni network, which has been pretty remarkable. I sent a message into a group chat of about 150 Woos asking if someone knew someone in a policy office at Airbnb, and I got a connection to the office about a half hour later. Twenty-four hours after that, Airbnb reached out and was interested in trying to find a way to partner with the state of New Jersey. It’s an incredible network in a crisis to be able to connect people to good faith actors. In addition, my information-processing skills have been sharpened at the Woo in a way I didn’t expect. Everybody talks about the pain of writing memos and refining your language to make it as consumable as possible, but that has been one of the most important things I’ve had to do in this response — to help streamline information, so that people who make decisions are using sound information that is clearly presented. At the Woo, I learned everything from the simplest tips, such as enlarging talking points so principals can read them more easily at a press conference, to how to communicate in complex situations, such as presenting and deciding between two policy options, both of which might have terrible implications and outcomes. Being able to distill complex information for others is essential, especially in a crisis when time is precious.
Q. If you could share a message with the Princeton University community, what would it be?
Hammond-Paul: I would say two things. First, now is the time — whether you work in academia or you’re a student or an alum who works for the private sector — now is the time when everybody can apply their work directly to a really important cause. So, if you’re a student, how do you think about what you want to do after you graduate in a way that can help the world heal and ensure we’re better prepared for future pandemics? If you’re an academic, no matter your field, your research can be applied directly toward examining our current challenges. And for the alumni, think about how your products or services can they be applied to helping right now. Also, think about what your firm’s responsibility is to all the workers who have been hurt by this pandemic. Right now, more than ever, it’s easy to do the right thing.
My second message is: I think we need people to start thinking about the silver linings and how we rebuild from the rubble. I think there are a lot of silver linings out there, including revolutionizing how we think about human resource policies such as working from home, paid sick leave, health care, and education. A lot of innovation and new jobs will need to be created to overcome the pain of the pandemic, such as new technologies for people to assess their health at home, what a new hospitality industry looks like, better information-sharing capabilities, remote learning, and so on. There are so many opportunities right now to contribute, and there are going to be a lot of ways to jump in after the dust has settled. Maybe it is a bit naïve, but I’m an optimist.
*Hammond-Paul’s remarks do not represent the official views or policies of the government of the state of New Jersey or the N.J. Department of Health.