New Jersey Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli, whose grandmother died during the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic, says coronavirus is without a doubt the worst health care crisis she has ever seen.

“I’ve been through HIV-AIDS, I’ve been through Ebola, I’ve been through H1N1. I have never seen a situation like what we’re in right now," she said Thursday, when the state counted 1,700 deaths and more than 51,000 cases of COVID-19.

“I’m struck by the number of people that require hospitalization and decline very quickly. When you’re looking at 1,500 people in critical care on any one day, I’ve never quite seen that.”

More than 7,300 people are in the hospital with COVID-19, including 1,551 on ventilators.

“Even though all of the other pandemics that we’ve seen certainly have a percentage that don’t do well at all, (so many) needing pulmonary support and respiratory ventilation is what I’ve never quite seen," she said.

Dr. Lisa McHugh, the Health Department’s infectious disease epidemiology program coordinator, agrees this situation is unique.

“I was here working in the department during the pandemic in 2009 — H1N1 influenza. Very, very different than what we saw then," she said.

In order to mitigate the devastation, New Jersey and neighboring states have embarked on aggressive measures to enforce social distancing such as closing schools and certain businesses. This week, Gov. Phil Murphy went further by closing state and county parks, requiring everyone to wears masks in a grocery store and pausing non-essential construction projects.

Persichilli praised the work being done by nurses across the Garden State.

“I have a lot of empathy for them, trying to bring control into what right now seems like a chaotic situation.”

Before becoming commissioner, Persichilli served as the acting CEO of University Hospital in Newark. She began her career as a nurse, receiving her nursing diploma from the St. Francis Hospital School of Nursing. She then earned a bachelor of science degree in nursing, summa cum laude from, Rutgers University, and a master's degree is administration, summa cum laude, from Rider University.

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