State health officials warned on March 17 that a wave of new variants are driving a surge in new cases and hospitalizations in recent weeks, at a time when the Murphy administration is rolling back restrictions on indoor businesses and banking on ample vaccine availability in the coming weeks to build widespread COVID-19 immunity.
The state reported 3,590 new cases on March 17 and 38 new fatalities. The seven-day average was 3,145 positive cases, which was up 12% from both a week and a month ago.
Virtually all of North and Central Jersey have “backslide” in progress and seen recent surges in new cases according to New Jersey Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli. South Jersey has so far been spared.
Hospitalizations have plateaued at around 1,900 for the past 10 days, after trailing down from a mid-January peak of more than 3,700 COVID-19 patients.
“We’ve got to watch this like a hawk to make sure this does not break out and up from” that range, Gov. Phil Murphy said at a March 17 daily COVID-19 press briefing in Trenton.
The rate of transmission, or how fast the virus spreads, was 1.05 as of March 17, up from 1.03 the day before. It had been below 1 for several weeks over the winter. Murphy said that will likely also go up as March progresses.
There were 206 identified variants, of which 206 were a strain first detected in the United Kingdom, two cases of the strain first detected in Brazil and one instance of the South African strain, according to Persichilli.
Persichilli said health officials are watching the spread of the U.K. variant, known as B117, as “it is now the dominant strain in the country.”
Dr. Eddy Bresnitz, who’s heading the state Health Department’s vaccine efforts, cited federal data that the U.K. strain is likely to be the dominant in New Jersey and across the nation by the end of March. He did not have estimates on when the variant surge would peak, nor what those metrics would be.
But the hope, Bresnitz said, is that the vaccine efforts, and use of masks and social distancing, would counteract the spread of these variants.