Coronavirus Variants Holding Back Gov. Murphy From Loosening Health Restrictions

The UK variant of the coronavirus has made New Jersey officials hesitant to ease restrictions imposed during the pandemic.

“But for the variant, we were planning a much more fulsome opening over the next couple of weeks,” said Gov. Phil Murphy at a press briefing Feb. 17. “But the variants are hanging over our head. We are watching this like a hawk.”

New Jersey Department of Health (NJDOH)’s Dr. Eddy Bresnitz said that it is difficult to make any policy decisions when you do not know what is coming. The key health metrics officials use as a guide, such as hospitalizations and new cases, have been declining over the past couple of weeks.

Decision Factors

“The trajectory has been really tremendous in the last month,” said Bresnitz. “As long as we continue to do everything we have been emphasizing over the last year and at the same time continue to increase our vaccination rates, we will continue to head in that direction.”

“Those decisions about lossening the restrictions still have to be made even if we are concerned about the variants,” Bresnitz added. “But at the same time we have to be ready to stop and reverse course if necessary.” 

Murphy said going backward is “something we have tried to avoid like the plague. We want to continue to avoid doing that.”

50 Cases

State officials have identified a total of 50 cases of the UK variant in 11 counties in New Jersey, including seven in Essex County, four in Morris County, and two each in Hudson, Passaic and Warren counties.

NJDOH Commissioner Judith Persichilli said getting more people vaccinated is “particularly important given the concerns about the increasing number of mutations of the virus.”

Persichilli noted it is normal for a virus to mutate over time, some of which disappear and others that persist. The state, in coordination with private labs and the CDC, are increasing testing capacity in order to sequence the mutations. 

Faster Spread

“The sequencing is done on outbreaks with atypical transmission patterns, with international travel to areas where variants are present, for example Brazil and South Africa, and random samples from (each region) of the state,” said the commissioner. “We pay attention to any changes that may increase transmissibility, increase severity, or show resistance to the vaccine. That is why we work to identify and track variants.”

According to Persichilli, the variants appear to spread more easily and quickly than others which could lead to more new cases.

“So far studies suggest that antibodies generated through vaccination from the currently authorized vaccines will continue to prevent serious illness and slow the spread of the virus,” stated Persichilli. “This is why it is vital to practice the public health measures that are proven to reduce the spread of the virus.”

Playbook Unchanged

Those familiar measures include wearing a face mask, social distancing, thorough hand washing, staying home when sick and getting tested for the virus. 

Officials reminded residents to make sure they are using their masks correctly, now recommending using two masks—one disposal medical and one cloth—that fits snugly over the nose and mouth so as not to allow droplets into the respiratory system.

“Its the same playbook no matter the variant,” said Murphy. 

Daily Data

On Feb. 17, the cumulative number of confirmed coronavirus cases in New Jersey reached 673,108 with 3,786 total new PCR cases reported. There were 709 probable cases, bringing the cumulative total of antigen tests to 82,066. The total number of individual cases for the state is 755,174. Gov. Murphy previously noted there is some unknown overlap due to health officials urging those taking a rapid test to get a PCR test.

As for those that have passed, the state reported 92 new deaths, bringing that total to 20,343. The state listed probable deaths at 2,289, bringing the overall total to 22,632. State officials noted 42 deaths occurred in the last 24 hours of reporting that have not yet been lab confirmed.  

For North Jersey counties on Feb. 17, Bergen had a total of 397 new confirmed cases and 79 probable cases, Essex 416 new cases and 53 probable cases, Hudson 362 new cases and 76 probable cases, Morris 190 new cases and and 45 probable cases, Passaic 281 new cases and 36 probable cases, Sussex 49 new cases and 12 probable cases, and Warren 38 cases and two probable cases.

Of the total confirmed deaths in North Jersey, Essex County has the most with 2,357, followed by Bergen at 2,282, Hudson with 1,781, Passaic at 1,481, Morris at 877, Sussex at 206 and Warren County at 191.

In regards to probable deaths reported Feb. 17, Bergen has 280, Essex has 266, Morris has 225, Hudson has 177, Passaic has 169, Sussex has 62 and Warren has 19.

State Testing 

The daily rate of infections from those tested as of Feb. 12, was 10.8%; by region, the rate was 11.6% in the North, 10.1% in the Central region and 10.0% in the South. The state is no longer using serology tests as health officials explained those results show a past presence of the disease as well as a current one. 

As for the rate of transmission, it increased to 0.91 from 0.90 the previous day. Officials have continually cited transmission rate and positivity rate as health data they rely on to track how the coronavirus is being contained in New Jersey, guiding them in determining when restrictions have to be tightened or lifted.

Officials reported 2,370 patients were hospitalized; 2,203 cases were confirmed and 167 are under investigation. By region, there were 1,098 in the North, 729 in the Central and 543 in the South.

Of those hospitalized, 411 are in intensive care units and 309 on ventilators. A total of 301 patients were discharged, while 253 were admitted.

Bergen Tops County Count

Bergen has the most confirmed cumulative cases in the state with 65,539, followed by Middlesex at 64,974, Essex at 64,703, Hudson at 60,825, Passaic at 50,540, Ocean at 49,503, Monmouth at 48,996, Union at 47,243, Camden at 38,287, Morris at 30,541, Burlington at 29,844, Mercer at 25,316, Gloucester at 20,391, Atlantic at 18,893, Somerset at 17,801, Cumberland at 11,674, Sussex at 7,584, Warren at 6,010, Hunterdon at 5,955, Salem at 4,102, and Cape May at 3,514.  

In regards to probable cases, Bergen had the most at 7,915, followed by Union at 7,337, Ocean at 6,120, Essex at 5,850, Hudson at 5,238, Morris at 5,214, Monmouth at 4,939, Atlantic at 4,787, Middlesex at 4,707, Camden at 4,515, Passaic at 4,488, Burlington at 4,181, Somerset at 3,938, Cape May at 3,331, Gloucester at 2,980, Cumberland at 2,126, Mercer at 1,530, Sussex at 1,079, Warren at 679, Hunterdon at 602, and Salem 455.

Another 873 cases are still under investigation to determine where the person resides.

In regards to cases related to in-school transmissions, a total of 142 outbreaks involving 671 cases, with two new outbreaks accounting for 15 cases reported in the weekly update on Feb. 17. 

For North Jersey, Bergen County has 32 confirmed outbreaks with 129 cases, Passaic County has seven confirmed outbreaks with 32 cases, Sussex has six confirmed outbreaks with 15 cases, Warren has eight confirmed outbreaks with 20 cases, Hudson and Morris Counties have two confirmed outbreaks with 10 cases each, and Essex County with one confirmed outbreak with 92 cases.

Long-term Care Facilities

Health officials noted 387 long-term care facilities are currently reporting at least one case of COVID-19, accounting for a total of 14,051 of the cases, broken down between 6,967 residents and 7,084 staff. 

Cumulatively, 1,247 long-term care facilities reported a case infecting 32,107 residents and 20,791 staff, for a total of 52,986 cases. 

The state’s official death total will now be reported as those that are lab confirmed, sits at 7,863 on Feb. 17. The facilities are reporting to the state 7,793 residents deaths and 144 staff deaths.

Vaccine Distribution

The number of COVID-19 vaccines administered in New Jersey totaled 1,470,941 as of Feb. 17. Of those who have received the vaccine, 1,058,573 residents have received their first dose with 412,118 their second; 54% have been administered the Moderna vaccine and 46% the Pfizer. 

Demographically, 59% of those vaccinated are women and 41% men. As for ethnicity, 53% are White, 17% unknown, 16% other, 6% Asian, 5% Hispanic and 4% Black. In regards to age of those having received the vaccine, 38% are 65 years old or olders, 28% are between the ages of 50-64, 27% are between the ages of 40-49, and 8% are between the ages of 18-29.  

In North Jersey, Bergen County has delivered 163,977 doses, Essex 121,074 doses, Morris 107,767 doses, Passaic 66,506 doses, Hudson 67,419 doses, Sussex 22,749 doses, and Warren 13,737 doses. 

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