Spike of Covid-19 in New Jersey Waylays Reopening Plans

Covid-19 numbers are up again in the Garden State, where the death rate from the virus now ranks as the worst in the country.

Face coverings adorn a statue in Morristown, New Jersey, dedicated to Seeing Eye co-founder Morris Frank and his guide dog. Since dogs seldom get Covid-19, we’ll hold off on asking Buddy to trade that bandana for a paper mask. (Courthouse News photo/Nick Rummell.)

(CN) — Plans to reopen New Jersey may be on the back burner as Covid-19 cases continue to rise across the state, Governor Phil Murphy said Monday.

Indeed a tracker run by Johns Hopkins shows that the state’s seven-day rolling average of people testing positive for the virus is up nearly 8% from last week and up nearly 30% from last month. The state also has the highest death rate in the country per 100,000 people, according to Statista. New Jersey has lost more than 24,000 lives to Covid-19 as of Monday, and nearly 2,000 patients are being treated for the disease in the hospital.

“My guess is we won’t be opening up further capacities for some time now … because of the caseload,” Murphy said on CNN Monday morning. 

Later at a press conference, Murphy reiterated this point, saying he has no specific time frame with regard to reopening.

Just a few days earlier, with vaccination rates steadily rising, the Democratic governor announced he’d loosen indoor capacity limits for businesses like gyms and restaurants to 50%.

It was around this time last year that Murphy put the state into its first lockdown, shutting down almost all indoor activities, forcing schools into a remote-based model and restaurants to takeout only.

“In order to slow the spread of Covid-19, we must take aggressive and direct social distancing action to curtail nonessential activities in the state,” Murphy said at the time. “Our paramount priority is to ‘flatten the curve’ of new cases, so we do not overwhelm our healthcare system and overload our health care professionals who are on the frontlines of the response.’

New Jersey hospitals saw peak numbers in April, treating more than 8,000 people sick with the virus, as the state averaged between 2,000 and 5,000 new cases a day.

Once things cooled down in May, however, Murphy started the first phase of a reopening plan. By early June, as the state entered the second phase, beaches and most outdoor activities were open to the public. September saw the state resume some in-person learning and limited indoor dining, but it also brought a second wave of infection. The state began averaging around 4,000 new cases a day in November, seeing a peak of 7,880 on Jan. 13, 2021, and still has not made it to Phase 3.

Last month, as numbers dipped slightly, large sports venues were allowed to operate at 10% capacity and indoor weddings to operate at 35% capacity. To date, New Jersey has administered more than 3.5 million vaccines, with half a million being administered just last week.

Murphy declined Monday to characterize the current increase as a spike, telling reporters he has no plans to go back into a heavy lockdown.

“I think making blanket moves in reaction to numbers that have plateaued is not the way forward here,” he said.

That cautious tone is the right one, said Michael Gusmano, a professor at Rutgers Institute for Health, Health Care Policy and Aging Research.

“What has been particularly helpful is the focus of the governor’s office and the Department of Health on using data and the best science available,” Gusmano said in an email. “I think the focus on letting the data guide decisions is reflected in the suggestion that reopening plans may be delayed.”

New Jersey Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli emphasized Tuesday that even with loosening restrictions, the state is on high alert.

“We are acting as if a surge could happen tomorrow, and we will be ready,” Pershillelli told reporters.

Gusmano distinguished New Jersey’s policy moves from those of Texas, where the recent abandonment of mask mandates is expected to spur Covid-19 infection.

“If we continue to make progress with the vaccination program and people continue to wear masks, practice physical distancing and hand washing, we will be able to see significant progress by this summer,” said Gusmano. “If we loosen restrictions too quickly, we will significantly delay when we can get back to normal.”

With Governor Murphy up for re-election this year, his Republican opponent Jack Ciatterelli was critical of Monday’s announcement.

“No surprise here, as Murphy scrambles to keep up with states going to 100% today. The only science Phil Murphy cares about is political science,” Ciatterelli tweeted.

State Senator Joe Pennacchio announced Monday that he and other Republican will fight for an investigation into how Murphy handled Covid-19 in long-term care facilities. 

“New Jersey was one of only five states in the country to force facilities to accept Covid patients, and the Murphy administration forbid homes from testing new residents for the virus,” Pennacchio said in a press release. “There is no question this contributed significantly to the loss of life. The nonsensical mandate was a death sentence for innocent senior facility residents.”

Reporting from NJ.com quotes remarks from an unidentified administrator during a March 2020 conference call with Persichilli. “You understand that by asking us to take Covid patients, by demanding we take Covid patients, that patients will die in nursing homes that wouldn’t have otherwise died had we screened them out,” the administrator said.

Across state lines, similar allegations have heavily stained what was a sterling approval rating for New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s leadership in the pandemic.

Murphy said Monday at the press conference that his directives and those of the health departments were “crystal clear” for what long-term care facilities and nursing homes were to do regarding keeping residents and staff safe from individuals with Covid-19. Murphy noted that it is possible that administrators may have screwed up when implementing such directives.

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