State officials rolled out the framework for expanded testing and contact tracing for COVID-19, two key initiatives cited by Gov. Phil Murphy that are needed to be in place to reopen New Jersey.
In a program Murphy said will cost “hundreds of millions of dollars,” the governor established a floor of processing 20,000 tests a day in the state by the end of May and building a contact tracing corps doubling the number currently employed in the state.
The state’s six point Road Back plan features four health benchmarks the governor believes is critical to achieve that will allow residents to be confident to restart the economy. Besides reductions in COVID-19 cases, expanded testing and having a contact tracing program, the other benchmarks are securing safe places for isolation and quarantine, executing a responsible economic restart and ensuring New Jersey’s resiliency in case the virus boomerangs.
Underpinning to Recovery
Testing and contract tracing are “the underpinnings” to reopening the state, stated Murphy at his daily coronavirus briefing May 12. “Without testing and contact tracing working hand-in-hand, we cannot get on the road back,” he commented.
According to state officials, priorities in the testing program begin with vulnerable populations. To that end, the New Jersey Department of Health (NJDOH) is mandating all residents and staff at long-term care facilities be tested by May 26 (with follow-up testing not more than one week later) and the facilities must confirm to NJDOH their updated outbreak prevention plan by May 19.
The state will continue to partner with the federal government, private labs and Rutgers RUCDR Infinite Biologics to administer tests. To expand the university’s testing capabilities, the state is directing $6 million in federal funding to Rutgers to boost their test production capabilities to 50,000 per day from its current 10,000 level over the next two months.
Murphy said the state will deploy testing supplies to areas based on need and potential hotspots to “hold off a second wave of the virus. We will be guided by data, not by politics…COVID-19 doesn’t care whether you live in a blue home or red home, or a home of no color at all.”
Additionally, NJDOH will issue standing orders expanding access to testing without a prescription for residents with possible exposure who fall in priority categories and lack access to a primary care practitioner.
“This is particularly important for our communities of colors,” noted Murphy.
Reaching Inner Cities
To reach urban areas, the state will utilize mobile testing units and open testing sites at churches, synagogues and mosques.
“We need a program that gives every New Jerseyan the confidence that they can be tested, as well—whether they’re symptomatic or asymptomatic, or whether they work in the public or private sectors,” said Murphy.
In regard to contact tracing, Murphy said the state will build a Community Contact Tracing Corps, “an entire community of contact tracers to help those already on the ground,” said Murphy.
The first-term Democratic governor plans to centralize what has historically been a regionalized system so all contract tracers are working off of the same information platform.
To that end, the state is contracting with the technology firm dimagi to bring the CommCare platform to New Jersey.
“CommCare will ensure that all data is centralized and uniformly reported,” said Murphy. “We’re increasing collaboration among municipalities that make up a county to help have a more regional/county based approach.”
With current staffing levels at between 800-900 tracers statewide, the state will look to add at least 1,000 more by partnering with the New Jersey’s colleges and universities to employ their public health, social work and health-related workers. Murphy said the pay for those jobs will be about $25 per hour.
“Maintaining both a steady supply of testing materials and a community of contact tracers will take hundreds of millions of dollars,” said Murphy. “We all must understand that.”
The governor said the investment will need to come from state and federal resources, as well as investments by philanthropic and corporate partners.
“We’re expanding access to testing and putting together a robust tracing effort to give us faith that the public’s health will continue to be priority number one,” said Murphy. “Without that faith, there can be no economic restart or recovery.”
“Moreover, we know that we just can’t work to a date certain, because even when COVID-19 recedes we have to be prepared for its eventual return. Until there is a proven vaccine, or even a proven therapeutic, our best chance at catching and containing this virus is through testing and contact tracing.”