New hires and technological improvements to the state unemployment system will help process a backlog of weekly claims on par with those experienced throughout Superstorm Sandy.
By Matt Skoufalos | May 7, 2020
Another 1,827 New Jersey residents have tested positive for novel coronavirus (COVID-19), bringing the statewide total to 133,635 cases, Governor Phil Murphy reported Thursday.
Sadly, 254 more residents perished from complications related to the virus, bringing the statewide death toll to 8,801 lives lost during the pandemic.
In a majority of counties, COVID-19 cases are doubling at least every 30 days; in Camden County, cases are doubling every 22 days.
Throughout New Jersey, 4,996 people are hospitalized with a case of COVID-19, or while awaiting confirmation of their symptoms, down 40 percent from a peak of 8,270 on April 15.
That sub-5,000-patient number is “a milestone” that shows “that the stress on [hospital] capacity is lessening,” the governor said.
“There was a time when we were speaking to a possibility of 36,000 hospitalizations,” Murphy said, praising residents for suppressing those predictions with their individual behavior.
Of those 4,996 patients, 1,470 are in intensive or critical care, and 1,107 (75 percent) are on ventilators; those counts have not been fewer than 1,500 patients since April 4, Murphy said.
In the past 24 hours, hospitals admitted 325 new patients and discharged 460 others, either to a lower-acuity care setting or to their homes, although that balance favors new hospitalizations over discharges more in South Jersey.
Thirty-six patients are presently receiving care at one of the state’s field medical stations, which have served 400 people in total.
Statewide, 513 long-term care (LTC) centers have reported at least one case of COVID-19, and account for 24,639 infected people statewide and 4,505 deaths. Of 676 veterans residing in a state-run home, 362 residents have tested positive for the virus, and 127 have died from complications related to the virus.
At state-run psychiatric facilities, 173 of 1,250 patients have tested positive for COVID-19 and 11 people have died from complications related to the virus.
Unemployment woes, historic payouts
As hundreds of thousands of out-of-work New Jerseyans seek answers on the status of their unemployment benefit claims, New Jersey Commissioner of Labor and Workforce Development Rob Asaro-Angelo joined the governor’s briefing Thursday to speak about the process.
Of the 1 million residents who have sought state and federal unemployment benefits since March 15, New Jersey has paid out $1.9 billion to more than 700,000 “unemployed, underemployed, and furloughed” residents, Asaro-Angelo said: $905 million in state aid and $985 million in federal supplemental benefits.
On average, the system has processed 155,000 claimants per week—more than the state handled throughout the entirety of Superstorm Sandy, he said.
Half of all claims are processed within three weeks, and six days is the median length of time for a claim to be processed, the commissioner said. Within three weeks, 97 percent of claimants begin to receive benefits; 92 percent get them within two weeks.
As to the backlog of claimants still awaiting word of their benefits, software programmers have resolved a coding issue that allowed 270,000 claims to be processed that had been kicked back for an agent to review, Asaro-Angelo said.
Last week the department was able to process claims from 72,000 independent contractors or self-employed workers for federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA). But even as workers remove claims from the backlog, “more are piling up right behind them,” Asaro-Angelo said.
The department is in the process of contracting a new call center, has hired 130 new workers, and is returning hundreds of retirees to work to manage the backlog, Asaro-Angelo said. He promised that tens of thousands more gig-economy, self-employed, and independent contractor worker claims for federal assistance will be processed over the weekend.
Common holdups for claims being processed include: missing information, claims being filed in multiple states, and employers contesting information.
For others, their employers may not have entered their wages correctly.
More than 4,000 people every week incorrectly enter their direct deposit information, and many more incorrectly answer the legally required federal certification questions for benefits applications, Asaro-Angelo said.
To resolve that last point, NJDOL has issued an “answer guide” to walk claimants through the questions, which new claimants will have to certify that they’ve read before filing. The agency is also adding a chatbot and has established a dedicated FAQ site on the state COVID-19 page.
“We’re doing everything in our power to get everyone the income they’re entitled to,” Asaro-Angelo said. “Thousands of workers in our department have not stopped working to get you the help that you deserve.”
National guardsmen deployment, hospital visits
As the numbers of hospitalizations decline, New Jersey Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli described a framework for limited hospital visits for those healthy friends and relations of pregnant women, people with disabilities, and those in end-of-life care.
Labor and delivery patients may welcome “a spouse, partner, sibling, doula, or any person the expectant mother chooses,” Persichilli said.
Those “designated healthy support persons” for individuals with disabilities may include family members, care assistants, and service providers; those receiving end-of-life care may welcome any healthy visitor.
All visitors must not have had contact with anyone who has a respiratory illness, must not be actively symptomatic or feverish, and “must be screened and must be able to wear appropriate protective equipment,” she said. Every facility will have its own instructions and visitors should contact sites before arriving.
Murphy also announced that 120 National Guardsmen will be deployed to long-term care sites this weekend to support COVID-19 mitigation efforts and “backfill the need they are not able to fill on their own.
“These are non-clinical folks, and we are not robbing from Peter to pay Paul,” the governor said.
“These are folks who are not healthcare professionals doing non-clinical work.”
Finally, as the summer approaches, guidance will be forthcoming for beach openings, Murphy said adding that residents should “prepare for a significant amount of guidance in the next five to seven days” on a variety of re-opening issues.
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