Governor Phil Murphy says New Jersey will hire at least 1,000 contact tracers as the state ramps up to contain COVID-19 before reopening can begin in earnest.
By Matt Skoufalos | May 12, 2020
Another 898 New Jersey residents have tested positive for novel coronavirus (COVID-19), bringing the statewide total to 140,743 cases, Governor Phil Murphy reported Monday.
Sadly, 198 more residents perished from complications related to the virus, bringing the statewide death toll to 9,508 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 28 days.
Camden County also led the state in new COVID-19 patients Tuesday, with 87.
Throughout New Jersey, 4,328 people are hospitalized with a case of COVID-19, or while awaiting confirmation of their symptoms. Of those 4,328 patients, 1,306 are in intensive or critical care, and 982 (75 percent) are on ventilators.
In the past 24 hours, 71 New Jersey hospitals admitted 360 new COVID-19 patients and discharged 164 others, either to a lower-acuity care setting or to their homes.
Across New Jersey, 518 long-term care (LTC) centers have reported at least one case of COVID-19, and account for 26,476 infected people statewide (19 percent of total cases) and 4,953 deaths (51 percent).
Of 668 veterans residing in a state-run home, 363 residents have tested positive for the virus, and 133 have died from complications related to the virus. At state-run psychiatric facilities, 193 of 1,240 patients have tested positive for COVID-19 and 12 people have died from complications related to the virus.
Thirty-one patients are presently receiving care at one of the state’s field medical stations, which have served 434 people in total.
Testing, contact tracing
New Jersey’s COVID-19 statistics are trending overwhelmingly positively, Murphy said Tuesday.
New hospitalizations are down 70 percent from their peak in mid-April, total hospitalizations are down by nearly half, and critical and ICU numbers are down significantly, the governor said.
New cases are down 60 percent from their peaks, and deaths are down 25 percent from the peak, he said.
However, New Jersey leads the nation in new cases, new patients, and new deaths per 100,000 people, which Murphy said indicates the severity of the pandemic and the risks associated with reopening before mechanisms are in place to contain new outbreaks.
To that end, New Jersey is ramping up COVID-19 testing to at least 20,000 tests per day by the end of the month, and at least 25,000 per day by the end of June.
“More testing means more people will know their health status, and that creates peace of mind,” Murphy said.
But he also warned that “maintaining both a steady supply of testing materials and a community of contact tracers will take hundreds of millions of dollars.”
The state will dedicate $6 million in federal funds to Rutgers University’s RUCDR Infinite Biologics, which developed the FDA-approved saliva test for COVID-19 to increase testing production from 10,000 per day to “a multiple of that” within weeks, Murphy said.
In addition to producing more tests, the state “need(s) testing that goes out to the people as much as people can go to it,” the governor said.
Officials will roll out mobile testing units and will establish test sites within faith-based institutions to access low-income and vulnerable populations throughout New Jersey.
The state Department of Health will order expanded access to COVID-19 testing without a prescription “for residents with possible exposure who fall in priority categories and lack access to a primary care practitioner,” Murphy said.
Those priority categories will include “front-line workers” in healthcare, transit, food service, and emergency services; vulnerable populations, including those in long-term care and their caregivers; and those in the general populace who may have been exposed to the virus.
Seasonal farm workers are on that list as well; in South Jersey, 129 have been tested so far, with 57 positive. New Jersey Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli said the state is developing a plan to test all seasonal farm workers, and will quarantine those who need it at the Salem Hospital field medical station.
All long-term care residents and staff must be tested for the virus no later than May 26, and sites have until May 19 to confirm their plans for doing so, Persichilli said.
LTC outbreak plans must also include post-testing and return-to-work protocols for residents and staff. Some 90,000 New Jersey residents live in LTC facilities, and about one-third of them (26,476) have tested positive for COVID-19.
In South Jersey, Cooper University Hospital has led universal baseline testing efforts at 16 facilities, and 76 additional facilities across the state will be tested universally this week, Persichilli said.
By June, the commissioner said she plans to expand universal testing throughout the state.
New Jersey is also prepared to hire at least 1,000 to 5,000 more contact tracers to supplement the 900 or so paid and volunteer contact tracers currently employed in the state.
Murphy advocated a “regional structure” for contact tracing, and said he hoped technology could lend efficiency to the process. Anyone interested in working as a contact tracer is encouraged to apply here.
New Jersey will roll out the Dimagi Commcare software platform to centralize data collection during the pandemic, Murphy said. It will supersede any prior regional or county-based reporting approach, and the state will pay for software.
“When time is of the essence, we cannot lose any of it trying to work across different platforms,” he said.
Contact tracers will have a challenging job, and must be both “culturally competent and multilingual,” the governor said.
State epidemiologist Christina Tan described the job as “a really specialized skill” that involves having “talents in interpersonal and cultural sensitivity” and confidentiality as well as the ability to be tactful and patient when interviewing people who might have been exposed to a COVID-19 patient.
Persichilli said the state hopes to have 90 percent of all new positive COVID-19 cases contacted within 24 hours of a confirmed case of the virus.
Testing and contact tracing are intended “to give everybody the confidence that we’ve got the infrastructure in place” to open up the state and contain spikes in new COVID-19 cases “with very short notice,” Murphy said.
The governor acknowledged the economic impact of the virus on New Jersey as representative of what’s being felt nationally, and said he hopes that there will be “some semblance of a new normal on the shore by the time Memorial Day comes around.
“That doesn’t mean we aren’t still going to take an economic hit,” Murphy said.
“We’re trying to take the steps as responsibly as we can to get back as fast as we can.”
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