Gov. Phil Murphy unveiled a six-step guideline for just what the state’s health care landscape and the COVID-19 outbreak need to look like in New Jersey before the administration begins to relax its near-total lockdown in a “number of weeks, not months.”
Touted as “The Road Back: Restoring Economic Health through Public Health,” Murphy’s plan and guidelines lack specific dates for when certain milestones should be reached, same as the national plan rolled out by the Trump administration earlier in the month.
“[E]veryone up here, and our respective teams – will be guided by one overarching principle – and one principle only – as we plan our state’s reopening,” Murphy said in his Monday prepared remarks. “It is this: public health creates economic health.”
That means, according to Murphy, that “before we reopen non-essential stores and businesses, before we can reopen our parks, or before we allow in-person dining in our restaurants,” patrons and residents need to have the assurance they can avoid the risk of exposure to COVID-19.
As of Monday afternoon, the virus infected 111,188 New Jersey residents and claimed 6,044 lives. Still, state health officials have pointed out that the rate of new cases has flattened in recent weeks, staying at between 3,500 and 4,000 a day.
Meanwhile, hospitalizations have steadily dropped in the past week, prompting state officials to eye how they could slowly lift restrictions.
Murphy’s plan would be part of a regional approach, done in lockstep with Massachusetts, New York, Connecticut, Delaware, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island. U.S. President Donald Trump’s plan allows for states to enact their own strategies or band together for multi-state collaboration.
“For us to rush ahead of either Pennsylvania or New York, or any of our other four state partners – or vice versa – would risk returning our entire region back into lockdown mode,” Murphy said.
“I’ll be very surprised if a restaurant in Jersey City has a different protocol than one in the Lower East Side of Manhattan.”
The reopening would likely be statewide, not county-by-county.
“The minute they open up two or three parks, either a county park or a state park in those counties, you get the rest of those counties if not the rest of the region showing up,” the governor said.
Under the first state guideline, the state would need to see a 14-day drop in the number of new cases and hospitalizations.
“We cannot look at just one day or one snapshot in time and say we’ve succeeded or failed. We will need to look across a length of time,” Murphy said.
Second, the state would need to at least double its testing capacity, which would likely be done “by the end of May,” according to the governor.
As testing is expanded from just symptomatic residents to those without symptoms, the positivity rate should decrease from its current 43 percent to the 10 percent recommended by the World Health Organization, according to State Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli.
Emphasis would be on testing health care and essential workers and vulnerable populations, such as the elderly and those with preexisting conditions. Those who test positive would be put in touch with health care providers.
That ramped up testing would require expanded coordination with federal and private-sector labs, and higher education – such as the saliva-based COVID-19 test developed by Rutgers University.
The state would need “surveillance testing within communities” to track potential outbreaks, Murphy said.
Third, the state needs to ramp up its contact tracing ability, that is, its use of technology to identify those who have been in contact with anyone who has tested positive for COVID-19, and to have state personnel reach out to those individuals.
That would require a team of 15 to 81 persons per every 100,000 residents, “whose sole purpose will be to identify these individuals,” Murphy said, “so we can follow-up and ensure they do not contribute to further spread” of the virus.
The state is also looking at working with companies to employ technology to “help identify those with whom the individual may have come into contact.” At least three companies so far have been tapped, Murphy said: Google, Salesforce and Bloomberg Philanthropies.
Fourth, the state needs to be able to actually test those people, and provide a “safe and free place to isolate and protect others from COVID-19,” likely at hotels, the governor said.
Fifth, the plan calls for a “Restart and Recovery Commission” to gauge how businesses can reopen while still allowing for social distancing. Murphy said the commission’s members will be announced on Tuesday.
“I will ask the commission to give the highest priority for reopening using a clear standard of ‘essential and safe’ – beginning with businesses, industries, and activities which are not only essential to our economy, but which provide the lowest risk of disease transmission,” Murphy said.
“Then, we can move up the matrix, bringing more businesses and activities online until we achieve a fully functioning and open economy,” he added.
A reopening, Murphy said, could likely require social distancing and face coverings – such as at dine-in restaurants – and work-from-home directives for employees who do not need to physically be in the office.
I just don’t envision being in tight spaces without real restrictions.
“Concerts aren’t going to be any time soon, as an example,” he said. “High amount of density, the risk is high.”
And the Jersey Shore – an industry that generated upward of $45 billion in 2018 – would only resume “some semblance” of normalcy.
“I just don’t envision being in tight spaces without real restrictions” and social distancing, the governor said.
Sixth, the state needs to conduct a post-mortem, ensure that ventilators and personal protective equipment for New Jersey and health care facilities are well-stocked, and create a pandemic “playbook” of the “dozens of executive orders and other processes necessary for facing a global pandemic head on.”
“We cannot find ourselves in another situation where we must rely on the federal government, or our corporate and philanthropic partners, to source what we need. We must build our resiliency now.”