Despite a rebound of COVID-19 across the state in recent weeks, and Gov. Phil Murphy cautioning that the state “isn’t out of the woods yet” with the pandemic, he assured Wednesday that widespread shutdowns seen in the spring are highly unlikely to return.
“I sure as heck hope we don’t and I do not anticipate it,” the governor said at a Facebook Live virtual town hall. “I will be profoundly saddened and I will say shocked if we have to shut the whole place down again. I just don’t see that.”
When the pandemic rammed into the state in early March, the governor responded with sweeping business closures, bans on public gatherings and a stay-at-home order, all as a means to slow the spread of the virus.
Those measures have shown many signs of working, having even garnered the praise of Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert. But, it’s shattered the state economy in the process, leading to record-high unemployment and 1.6 million New Jerseyans out of work.
Restrictions have gradually been lifted: Indoor dining, theaters, casinos, theaters, salons and malls have reopened their doors, albeit with intense physical distancing, reduced capacity and sanitization requirements.
But now, the state is seeing upticks in the number of daily positive COVID-19 cases, with the vast majority of them coming out of Lakewood in Ocean County.
According to State Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli, the positivity rate among COVID-19 tests in Lakewood was 27 percent, compared to a statewide average of roughly 3 percent.
State health officials warned that the area’s sizable Jewish population has fueled the local resurgence, and are rushing to deploy contact tracers and rapid-turnaround COVID-19 testing to Lakewood to contain the outbreak, Persichilli said.
“Is it a canary in the coal mine? I don’t know,” Murphy added at a Sept. 30 press conference. “ I hope it isn’t. I hope it is not.”
Meanwhile, the prospect looms of a second wave of COVID-19 outbreaks during the colder fall and winter months, which state health officials worry could potentially coincide with flu season.
But unlike March and April, when the state was caught off guard and its health care system put under strain, Murphy said that now New Jersey has “so much more in the right place.”
That includes a more thorough medical understanding of the virus, social distancing and face covering requirements in public and at businesses, increased bed capacity and ventilator availability at hospitals, and an increased stockpile of personal protective equipment like masks and gloves.
The state also has the ability to carry out tens of thousands of COVID-19 tests a day and several thousand contact tracers, whose job is to track down potential cases of the virus, and urge those people to get tested and self-isolate to nip potential outbreaks in the bud.
“The thing that makes me very pleased and encouraged about New Jersey is that, notwithstanding that you got hit pretty badly, right now if you continue to carefully and prudently open the economy, you can get through the fall and the winter,” Fauci told Murphy last week.
New Jersey’s “baseline” with the virus is “so low, you are going to be at an advantage when the inevitable cases occur,” explained Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.