While the state has religiously followed the guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) throughout the pandemic, Gov. Phil Murphy broke away when he announced a school mask mandate would end March 7.
The governor recently explained that he was comfortable with the decision due to the knowledge gained by the state, led by the New Jersey Department of Health, over the last two years.
“The other waves had long, sloping ups and long, sloping downs in terms of case count, hospitalizations, etc,” explained Murphy at a press briefing Feb. 16. “This (Omicron surge) went straight up and it’s coming straight down. So our experience when we took this step—and continues to be the case —is as wide from the American norm as we have been in any wave. We felt responsibly that we could take this step, and that’s the reason.”
The CDC currently recommends universal indoor masking in areas with greater risk of transmission, which can be determined by the number of cases per 100,000 and the test positivity rate. But federal health officials, including Chief Medical Advisor to the President Dr. Anthony Fauci and CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, have hinted in the last week that a guidance change could be at hand.
But New Jersey has gone ahead of the federal government and Murphy stated geography played a role as the Garden State has been one of “the first places hit by each of the waves. That was in March of 2020, all the waves in between including Omicron.”
The governor argued that not removing masks at an earlier date has been proven to be the right decision.
“I think the overwhelming science and medical assessment from New Jersey, as well as nationally if not the world, was that there was still an enormous sense of uncertainty, that folks just were almost completely uncertain about what was around the corner,” he said. “Lo and behold, they turned out to be right and we got Omicron, among other things. There is, I’d say, overwhelming developing scientific and medical consensus that we have a much better sense of where this is going.”
But the Democratic governor continued to be baffled how and why the uses of masks became politicized.
“For the life of me, I guess it started with Donald Trump and that whole period, but they’ve become politicized,” he said. “Whether we lift the mask mandate or not, this has been politicized for reasons that are at odds with public health, for sure, since moment one.”
Murphy reiterated that he does support the concept of banning masks as it results in individuals or a school district having to sue to allow them to wear masks.
“I think that’s backwards,” he stated. “We’re saying listen, this is a responsible plan, a responsible time to do this. If locally, based on your local health realities or if you individually, a student or an educator or staff member, want to continue to wear a mask, you should be allowed to and not stigmatized.”
Focus Group Folly
And the Governor sought to put to rest the notion that his decision was based on a December focus group.
“That doesn’t mean that I don’t care or others don’t care deeply about what parents feel because we do,” said the man recently elected for a second term. “You don’t need a focus group, although it certainly was—it jumps out at you in a focus group….to conclude people are sick and tired of this thing. It’s everywhere.”
Murphy finished by stating “(We) overwhelmingly want to get this thing behind us. It’s the facts over here where (state health officials and I) have to make our decisions on. Notwithstanding whatever fatigue there might be, which is a fact, you have to make decisions based on the data. I want to make sure folks get that completely.”
The cumulative number of confirmed coronavirus cases in New Jersey as of Feb. 18 was 1,862,636 with 1,931 total new PCR cases. There were 482 probable cases, bringing the cumulative total of antigen tests to 292,764. The total number of individual cases for the state is 2,155,400.
As for those that have passed, the state reported 38 confirmed deaths, bringing that total to 29,698. The state listed probable deaths at 2,949, bringing the overall total to 32,647. State officials noted 21 deaths occurred in the last 24 hours of reporting that have not yet been lab confirmed.
For North Jersey counties on Feb. 18, Bergen had a total of 194 new confirmed cases and 67 new probable cases, Essex 226 new cases and 15 new probable case, Hudson 212 new cases and eight new probable cases, Morris 181 new confirmed cases and 22 new probable cases, Passaic 64 new cases and 55 new probable cases, Sussex 29 new cases and six new probable cases, and Warren 33 new cases and three new probable cases.
Of the total confirmed deaths in North Jersey, Essex County has the most with 3,233, followed by Bergen at 3,067, Hudson with 2,459, Passaic at 2,102, Morris at 1,208, Sussex at 371, and Warren County at 306.
In regards to probable deaths reported Feb. 14, Bergen has 321, Essex has 311, Morris has 291, Hudson has 223, Passaic has 200, Sussex has 83 and Warren has 27.
As for the rate of transmission reported Feb. 18, it increased to 0.60 from 0.53 two days ago. The daily rate of infections from those tested Feb. 13 was 6.4%; by region, the rate was 5.6% in the North, 6.9% in the Central region and 7.3% in the South.
The state’s dashboard had a count of 1,159 patients hospitalized as all 71 hospitals in the Garden State filed reports Feb. 18. By region, there were 430 in the North, 383 in the Central and 346 in the South. Of those hospitalized, 195 are in intensive care units—below 200 for the first time since Nov. 30, 2021—and 131 on ventilators. A total of 221 patients were discharged in the last 24 hour reporting period.
Officials have continually cited transmission rate, hospitalizations, intensive care units, ventilators 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.
Long-term Care Facilities
Health officials noted 504 long-term care facilities are currently reporting at least one case of COVID-19, accounting for a total of 26,268 of the cases, broken down between 12,133 residents and 14,145 staff.
Cumulatively, 2,360 long-term care facilities have reported an outbreak infecting 46,588 residents and 37,821 staff, for a total of 84,409.
The state’s official death total will now be reported as those that are lab confirmed, sits at 9,219 on Feb. 18. The facilities are reporting to the state 8,484 residents deaths and 149 staff deaths.
The number of COVID-19 vaccines administered in New Jersey totaled 13,596,250 in-state, plus an additional 557,247 administered out-of-state for a grand total of 14,153,497 as of Feb. 18.
Of those who have received the vaccine, 6,474,108 received their second dose or the one jab Johnson & Johnson dose in state and another 222,775 out of state, bringing those fully vaccinated to 6,696,883. With just under 8.5 million eligible in New Jersey to be vaccinated, 77% are fully vaccinated and 91% have received at least one dose.
State officials reported boosters and third shots of 1,550,506 for Pfizer and 1,298,030 for Moderna. A total of 62,783 New Jerseyans have received their Johnson & Johnson booster shot. Overall, 2,911,319 have received a booster or third shot. Overall, 51% of the 5.7 million of those eligible have received their booster.
In North Jersey, Bergen County has 710,153 residents fully vaccinated, Essex 576,734, Hudson 516,237, Morris 380,919, Passaic 350,917, Sussex 91,296, and Warren 59,388.
According to the state dashboard with 64.6% of all New Jersey schools reporting, new student cases totaled 3,910 and new staff cases 1,036 in the last week as of Feb. 6. Cumulatively, 132,263 cases have been reported— 103,614 students and 28,649 staffers.
In regards to outbreaks related to in-school transmissions as of Feb. 15, the state has tracked 503 school outbreaks and 3,433 cases linked to those outbreaks since the 2021/2022 school year starting Aug. 7, up 19 outbreaks and 178 cases from the week previous.
Outbreaks are defined as three or more laboratory confirmed COVID-19 cases among students or staff with onsets within a 14 day period, linked within the school setting, do not share a household, and were not identified as close contacts of each other in another setting during standard case investigation or contact tracing.
For North Jersey in the new report, Bergen County has 57 confirmed outbreaks with 328 cases, Morris County has 40 confirmed outbreaks with 246 cases, Essex County has 33 confirmed outbreaks with 232 cases, Passaic County has 22 confirmed outbreaks with 188 cases, Sussex has 34 confirmed outbreaks with 177 cases, Hudson County has 19 confirmed outbreaks with 92 cases and Warren County has two confirmed outbreaks with 15 cases.