State Comptroller Faults Essex County COVID Vaccine Program

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The Office of the State Comptroller (OSC) has investigated Essex County’s administration of its COVID vaccination program and found “significant deficiencies” in how the County bought goods and services, monitored contracts and oversaw vendors. The OSC says that these problems “exposed the County to avoidable risks of fraud, waste, and abuse and undermined transparency and accountability in the use of public funds.” The COVID vaccines administered are not at issue.

The County had gotten $40 million in federal funding to run its COVID testing and vaccinations. The OSC notes in its report that, while competitive bidding may not be required during an emergency, the New Jersey Local Public Contracts Law requires that local governments follow specific emergency procurement procedures, which the OSC says didn’t happen or were poorly monitored. One example: Essex County spent $17 million on extra workers without documenting whether they showed up for work. Two workers logged hours in the vaccination program while they were on the clock for other public-sector jobs, and one contractor was paid twice, based on the same $110,000 invoice.

The OSC also found that Essex County failed to heed the Public Contracts Law’s explicit prohibition on using emergency procurement for multi-year contracts. “For 12 of the 21 contracts OSC reviewed,” the report noted, “Essex paid regular and repeated purchase orders to the same vendor, for the same good or service, for more than a year. These de facto multi-year emergency contracts totaled nearly $8.6 million, or 87 percent of the dollar value of OSC’s sample.”

You can read the OSC’s full report here and watch a report from NJ Spotlight News below.

The report includes a response from Essex County disputing the findings. In a statement issued today, Essex County Executive Joseph N. DiVincenzo, Jr., said that, “The 17-page report criticizing Essex County’s COVID-19 vaccination program that was issued by Acting State Comptroller Kevin Walsh is unbalanced, unfair and does not accurately depict Essex County’s response to the pandemic. His findings amount to nothing more than a ‘do as I say, not as I do gotcha’ report pointing out issues with just a very small fraction of the funds spent by the County fighting COVID.

DiVincenzo’s rebuttal notes that Essex County was among the first to open testing COVID centers, and that it had five vaccination sites, including the former Sears store in Livingston Mall (above) and the former Kmart store in West Orange, set up before vaccinations were available. According to the County, about 10% of all New Jersey COVID cases happened in Essex County.

“Residents knew they could rely on Essex County for testing and vaccinations,” DiVicenzo said. “We operated six, sometimes seven, days a week for 12 hours each day along with a mobile vaccination program that visited every corner of the county and hosted sometimes two sites a day. In the end, we administered about one-third of all vaccinations given in the entire County and became the primary COVID-19 vaccine provider for children because many pediatric health care providers were either not willing to or not able to provide these vaccines.”

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