Looking at New Jersey’s Recovery from COVID-19 through Public Contracts

Looking back at New Jersey’s response to COVID-19 over the past year and how OSC's contract review process supported our state's recovery.

  • Posted on - 07/19/2021
  • Author - Angela Cooper, Staff Attorney, Procurement Division

On January 21, 2020, the first COVID-19 case in the U.S. was confirmed. Approximately 42 days later, on March 4, the first case in New Jersey was announced. Governor Murphy declared a state of emergency and the State’s first-ever Public Health Emergency on March 9. The first COVID-related death in the state was declared the next day.

On March 16, Governor Murphy implemented measures to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 throughout the State, including the closure of non-essential businesses, schools, and strongly recommended all residents stay at home. Similar measures were implemented across the nation, initially characterized as a two-week period to stop the spread of COVID-19; however, no one at that time could have imagined the severity and duration of the State’s battle against COVID.

This pandemic swept through our state, affecting every single New Jersey resident. We as a community have suffered the loss of loved ones, unemployment and job instability, housing crises, health scares, work-from-home and learn-from-home arrangements, and isolation and social distancing from our friends and family.

Throughout these shared struggles, state and local governments served our communities while trying to cope with sometimes-insufficient resources and constantly changing information. Public funds are available to these entities to continue providing services with the utmost attention to community needs and safety.

As with past emergencies in New Jersey, like Superstorm Sandy, OSC has been tasked with providing oversight of New Jersey’s response to the pandemic. Governor Murphy signed Executive Order 166 on July 17, 2020. That Executive Order directed the Office of the State Comptroller to review potential procurements of $150,000 or more by state entities using COVID-19 Recovery Funds on an expedited basis. The same order directed the finalized contracts or purchase orders to be posted on the COVID-19 Oversight Transparency Website. Reviewing hundreds of contracts submitted by state agencies since the summer of 2020 has given our staff the opportunity to be part of New Jersey’s response to the pandemic.

OSC reviews procurements to make sure an entity’s contracting process complies with applicable law, rules, and regulations, including federal law when federal funding is involved. Many of the standards OSC looks for during the contract review are required by law to promote fair and transparent competition while preventing favoritism, waste, and corruption. Especially during this public health emergency, looking for proper legal compliance is imperative to limiting fraud, waste, and abuse, eliminating delays that occur if contract documents are unclear, and protecting funds from recapture by the federal government in the event of a violation of law during the procurement process.

At the start of the pandemic, New Jersey responded to the immediate medical crisis caused by the virus in the form of procurements for:

  • PPE (masks, gloves, and isolation gowns)
  • Emergency healthcare staffing
  • Ventilators
  • Hospital beds
  • COVID-19 testing services
  • Services for field hospitals

When the impacts of the pandemic began to spread to other areas of our life, the type of procurements coming into our office changed with it. While the health crisis continued, we began seeing contracts addressing our homes, work, and day-to-day needs:

  • Meals for the elderly and disabled confined to home
  • Department of Labor call center services to handle the incoming unemployment insurance claims
  • Consulting services for the Department of Community Affairs’ emergency rental assistance program
  • Contact tracing services
  • Disinfecting and cleaning services for state facilities
  • Public awareness campaigns urging the public to wear masks and get tested

As fall ushered in election season, we began to see procurements reflecting our nation’s response to voting during the pandemic:

  • Public information campaigns on Executive Order 211 postponing state and local elections
  • Election ballot drop boxes for early voting across the state

Then, as scientists and healthcare professionals around the world collaborated to produce a vaccine, the procurements we saw again began to shift to preventative measures and new services for our communities:

  • Vaccination call center services
  • Refrigerator systems to store the vaccines
  • Anti-fraud proofing for unemployment claims
  • Public information campaigns to mitigate the public’s hesitancy to get vaccinated
  • Online tutoring services through local libraries for K-12 students studying at home

We recognize that every public dollar really counts, and limiting fraud, waste and abuse is essential in making sure nothing disrupts our state’s recovery from COVID-19. In some cases, if the federal government finds that a state or local entity violated the law during the procurement process, the federal government may recapture those funds (which then has to come out of the state or local entity’s budget). Therefore, OSC’s objective in reviewing COVID-19 contracts is to make sure that funds are spent for eligible purposes under federal law and awarded to vendors with appropriate competition in a transparent manner.

OSC’s staff works with state agencies to ensure contracts include a clear description of the desired services or goods, deliverables and timelines so that recovery programs are run efficiently. Delays and waste can occur if contract documents are unclear.

As we enter a new phase of the pandemic, one focused on the continued recovery and rebuilding of our communities instead of emergent response, this office will continue to review procurements paid for by COVID Recovery Funds to keep those serving New Jersey accountable as we reopen and move forward.

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