New Jersey health officials said Wednesday they are worried that a shortage of medical staff in the coming weeks and months could jeopardize the ability of the state and its hospitals to respond to a second wave of COVID-19.
That’s despite ample levels of tests, critical care and surgical hospital beds, and of personal protective equipment like masks, gloves, face shields and cover-alls
“I don’t believe that we will plow through our… stockpile of PPE, of ventilators, of bed capacity,” Gov. Phil Murphy said at a Nov. 18 press conference. “It’s the staffing piece, that is the one that I think keeps us up at night.”
Cases and hospitalizations have exploded over the past month, as have the number of daily fatalities and COVID-19 patients on ventilators or in critical care.
The state reported 4,063 new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday, and over 2,400 hospitalizations, both the highest that the state has seen since the first wave in March. And over the weekend, the state logged an all-time record-high of new cases.
Murphy stressed that the increased numbers are tied back to dramatically ramped up testing capacity, and the availability of rapid turn-around BinaxNOW saliva tests.
But nonetheless, the Wednesday numbers “are not good and getting worse,” Murphy added.
“There is no way to sugarcoat these numbers.”
New restrictions on private indoor gatherings went into effect this morning, limiting them to just 10 people, down from 25. Outdoor gatherings will be limited to 150 people, down from 500, effective this coming Monday.
Restaurants can no longer offer bar-seating, and they must halt indoor dining at 10 p.m. Local towns and cities can enact curfews on non-essential businesses. Tougher restrictions could follow if those fail to reverse the spread.
New Jersey Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli – the state’s top health care official – said that hospitals have periodically been on divert status in the past week, meaning they were full and had to turn away patients.
But in many cases, that was not tied back to COVID-19, and instead run-of-the-mill patient health care issues.
“Staffing, I said repeatedly, that may be our biggest problem, our biggest issue,” she warned.
As the pandemic overwhelmed hospitals across North Jersey in the spring, forcing several to turn away new patients, state and federal emergency officials scrambled to redirect public health resources to handle the surge of COVID-19 patients and anyone who needed non-COVID medical services.
In conjunction with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the state set up three field hospitals, in East Rutherford, Edison and Atlantic City. Meanwhile, the New Jersey National Guard and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers brought unused wings and other medical facilities across the state back online.
Elective surgeries were barred between March and May, as part of a wartime economy effort to redirect those medical professionals toward attending to COVID-19 patient surges – something Murphy hinted on Monday may be part of a second round of restrictions should the need arise.
Licensing standards were temporarily loosened or waived for health care workers from out of state or still in school.
But with the second wave pummeling the entire globe, New Jersey does not have that option anymore, Murphy warned.
Whereas the first wave was concentrated in the New York City metropolitan region, these outbreaks have been more of a worldwide phenomenon, according to the governor.
“What is quickly becoming clear to us is that this surge will be much worse because we have a finite number of available staff and the rest of the country is surging at the same time,” Debbie White, president of the Health Professionals and Allied Employees – the 14,000 -member state nurses union – said in a Wednesday statement.