Gov. Phil Murphy said on March 22 that there will be no more rollbacks of COVID-19 restrictions for now thanks to a surge in new cases amid the spread of highly contagious variants across the state.
The most recent data from the federal Center for Disease Control showed New Jersey had the highest rate of new COVID-19 cases across the country, double the national average. Additionally, the spread of the highly contagious B-1.1.7 variant – first detected in the United Kingdom – has steadily undone any of the state’s progress in beating the spread of the pandemic. The New Jersey Department of Health’s online dashboard as of March 21 showed 328 cases of the B-1.1.7 variant, one case of the B-1.351 variant first detected in South Africa and two cases of the P-1 Brazilian variant.
“My guess is we won’t be opening further capacities for some time now because of the caseload,” the governor said in a Monday, March 22 morning interview with CNN.
“We want to do this safely, we don’t ever want to have to go back.”
On Friday, March 19, the state allowed businesses including restaurants, casinos, gyms, entertainment venues and personal care establishments to expand their indoor capacity from 35% to 50%. That was hailed by business owners and advocates as a move toward a more functional economy but garnered concern from public health experts about whether the move was appropriate given the variant surge.
Murphy later in the day said there was no evidence tying the new COVID-19 case to any reopenings, and said he didn’t have any regrets about the current rollbacks. He had no timeline on how long this new holding pattern would be in place.
But the lack of genomic sequencing in the state to determine which cases of COVID-19 are variants has handicapped the state’s ability to get a handle on this new surge, according to State Epidemiologist Christina Tan.
“We’re just assuming as a public health matter that these variants are all in the state,” the governor said in Trenton. “They’re more transmissible. We’re managing it on that basis.”
State health officials indicated there was a clear link between some of the highest caseloads seen in months and these new variants. And they warned the actual variant case count could be much higher than currently recorded.
As of March 21, the state logged 2,599 new cases and 40 deaths, according to the data from the state Health Department.
The seven-day average for new cases was 3,329 – up 11% from a week ago, and the highest seven-day average since mid-February when the state was coasting down from the second wave peak a month ago.
Two thousand patients were being treated at one of the state’s 71 acute-care hospitals for COVID-19, down from the mid-December peak of over 3,800 hospitalizations but still up from the 1,785 patients being treated as of March 7.
“We’ve definitely plateaued,” Murphy said during a Friday, March 19 interview with CNBC.
And New Jersey’s population density and proximity to New York City, Murphy warned, means the progression of these variants are “a little bit reminiscent of what happened last spring.”
A year ago, New Jersey and much of New York – especially New York City – was ground zero for the first wave of the pandemic.
“We already put 3.5 million vaccine shots in people’s arms, that story is only going to get better. The weather will get better,” Murphy said.o