Numbers of new Garden State COVID-19 cases have backtracked to what they were a month ago, the highest in weeks, as the global pandemic rebounds across the nation, and slowly in New Jersey.
In the past four days, the state clocked roughly 2,000 new cases of the virus, Gov. Phil Murphy said at his COVID-19 press briefing Wednesday afternoon in Trenton, and crowded house parties with attendees in their teens and early twenties were largely to blame.
“We are now back a month ago in the number of new daily cases,” Murphy warned, reporting 489 additional cases of the virus.
He reported 565 new cases on Tuesday, 512 new cases on July 27, and 547 new cases on July 26.
“When there are hundreds of people crammed into a house where the air conditioning system is simply blowing air around and also people aren’t wearing face coverings, you have also invited coronavirus to your party,” he added.
At least 125 new cases of COVID-19 were linked to mass gatherings, be it indoors or outdoors, according to State Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli. In April, the 18 to 29-year-old age group made up 12 percent of new cases of COVID-19, compared to 22 percent in June and up to 33 percent in July.
In the middle of the month, New Jersey was seeing 231 new cases on July 13 and 396 on July 15.
By comparison, the governor reported 461 new cases on June 30.
In Middletown, a party with high school-aged attendees – 14 to 19 years old – led to 55 people testing positive for the virus. In Long Beach Island, more than two dozen lifeguards contracted it after attending a party. And in Jackson, the three organizers of an AirBnB party with 700 attendees were charged with violating Murphy’s ban on large gatherings.
The Jackson party took police five hours to disband.
Indoor crowds have to be capped at 100 people, under the governor’s executive order.
A late June Cape May County gathering led to 46 new cases, in the age range of 16 to 23, while a Westfield high school graduation party led to 17 new cases, Persichilli said.
Outdoor gatherings that fail to adhere to social distancing and mask requirements also tend to serve as breeding grounds for the virus to spread to new hosts, Persichilli warned.
“Being outdoors does not eliminate the need to mask or social distance,” she said.
Murphy cautioned on Tuesday that with the rebound of the virus both in New Jersey and across the nation, the key numbers meant to show whether the virus is spreading have become more of a “mixed bag,” rather than reflecting that the virus is contained.
The state has a 2.42 percent positivity rate among COVID-19 tests—still in a comfortable range, but a metric that needs to be kept down.
New Jersey’s rate of transmission, or how quickly the virus spreads, is its highest in months at 1.14—nearly doubling since the administration rolled back restrictions in the latter half of June, starting with outdoor dining on June 15.
Combined with COVID-19 hospitalizations, which are still at a comfortable range, the three metrics are used by state health officials to gauge how far, and quickly, the virus has spread.
“Every new positive test is a person who could potentially end up in the hospital,” the governor said on Wednesday.
What’s not clear is how many of these new cases are “noise” or “data distortion” stemming from nationwide delays on testing results as long as seven days, which means the number of new cases might not be reflective of the latest status of the virus’s spread.
Murphy acknowledged Wednesday that the technical issues may have been at play with the latest numbers.
Another brick in the wall
Meanwhile, state health officials are looking at whether to revisit the metric by which they gauge the states from which travelers coming into New Jersey should self-quarantine, which as of Tuesday included 34 states, Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C.
The self-quarantine applies to any state with a positive test rate of 10 per 100,000 residents or a positivity rate higher than 10 percent, both over a seven-day rolling average.
“As an American matter this is going in the wrong direction,” the governor said Wednesday. “We’ve got to do everything we can to build a wall, a virtual wall, around our state and our region.”
But compliance with the self-quarantine is voluntary in New Jersey, and travelers headed into the state by air are not required to provide contact information to health officials, who might need the data to track down potential positive cases. In New York, failure to comply with contact tracers, could mean a $2,000 fine.
Murphy defended the current self-quarantine list and the calculations used to ascertain which states are considered riskiest.
Pennsylvania, New York and all of New England are excluded from that list.
“There’s still an enormous amount of travel of New Jerseyans, historically, among the states that are not on the list,” the governor said.
Persichilli said that health officials have been looking at whether those calculations should be changed, but on Wednesday she said they will remain the same.
“It’s a constant discussion on this one,” the health commissioner said.
“These are positive tests in New Jersey – over 2,000 – there’s just no denying it,” Murphy said.
Editor’s note: This story was updated at 7:50 a.m. EST on July 30, 2020, to include additional remarks and information from Gov. Phil Murphy’s July 29 COVID-19 briefing.