Plus: Governor Phil Murphy renews his calls for direct federal financial aid, contact tracers hit a wall after an outbreak in Middletown, and 230,000 students are on the other side of New Jersey’s digital divide.
By Matt Skoufalos | July 24, 2020
Another 488 New Jersey residents have tested positive for novel coronavirus (COVID-19), bringing the statewide total to 178,345 cases, Governor Phil Murphy reported Friday.
Sadly, 36 more residents have perished from complications related to the virus, bringing the statewide death toll to 13,845 lives lost during the pandemic.
Seven of those deaths have occurred in the past five days, Murphy said.
In addition to those lab-confirmed fatalities, the state also recognizes another 1,920 probable COVID-19-related deaths.
Throughout New Jersey, 800 people are hospitalized with a case of COVID-19: 388 have tested positive for COVID-19, and 412 are awaiting confirmation of their symptoms.
Among those hospitalized patients, 138 are in intensive or critical care, and 62 of ICU and critical-care patients (50 percent) are on ventilators.
Rate of transmission (Rt) at 0.84, spot positivity highest in South Jersey
The statewide average of COVID-19 spot positivity testing stood at 2.36 percent July 20; in South Jersey, it’s more than double, at 5.12 percent.
Issues with laboratory data have hampered reports of COVID-19 transmission rates this week, officials say, but as of July 22, the figure stands at 0.84.
Any Rt figure of less than 1.0 means that each new COVID-19 patient is infecting less than one other person, on average, which means the virus is contracting.
The lowest Rt reported since the mid-April COVID-19 peak in New Jersey was 0.62, recorded June 9. Last week, it spiked at 1.11.
New Jersey Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli said Friday that an “explosion of national cases” is affecting turnaround time of test results. The state is offering $94 million in grants for proposals to increase statewide testing capacity and availability. Applications are due August 9, with awards issued in September.
Long-term care accounts for half of all deaths, a fifth of those infected
Across New Jersey, 592 long-term care (LTC) centers have reported at least one case of COVID-19, and account for 37,309 infected patients and staff, or 21 percent of total cases.
That includes 24,517 residents and 12,792 staffers sickened by the virus, as well as 6,877 lab-confirmed resident deaths (50 percent of the statewide total) and 119 facility-reported staff deaths.
Of 654 veterans residing in a state-run home, 388 residents have tested positive for COVID-19, and 146 have died from complications related to the virus. Six veterans presently are hospitalized with COVID-19, and 240 have recovered from the virus.
At state-run psychiatric facilities, 213 of 1,232 patients and 509 staff members have tested positive for COVID-19. Thirteen patients and seven staffers have died from complications related to the virus.
To date, 55 New Jersey children aged 1 to 18 have been diagnosed with pediatric multisystem inflammatory syndrome, Persichilli said—two new cases this week in total.
All have tested positive for an active COVID-19 infection or the presence of COVID-19 antibodies, indicating exposure to the virus. Two children are still currently hospitalized. No deaths have been associated with this syndrome in New Jersey.
Infection rates at veterans homes, psychiatric facilities stabilizing
Containment protocols at New Jersey LTC sites appear to be having their intended effect, Persichilli said, as cases at state-run veterans homes and psychiatric facilities have flattened.
No resident of Veterans Memorial Home in Vineland has tested positive for COVID-19 in the past 60 days, the commissioner said.
At the Menlo Park Veterans Memorial Home, it’s been 50 days since any resident has tested positive for the virus, and 23 days for residents of the Paramus Veterans Memorial Home.
State psychiatric facilities are reporting similar data: Persichilli said no resident of the Ann Klein Forensic Center nor of the Graystone Park Psychiatric Hospital has tested positive in 60 days. No new positive cases have been reported among Ancora Psychiatric Hospital residents in 25 days, and none in 16 days at the Trenton Psychiatric Hospital.
“We must continue to be vigilant, as we know that residing in congregate settings puts these individuals at high risk,” Persichilli said.
NJDOE releases back-to-school guidance with fully remote option
With the scheduled start of the 2020-21 school year about six weeks away and no end to the pandemic in sight, the New Jersey Department of Education has issued guidance for school districts to support those parents who prefer that their children continue with remote education.
Whether they opt for “in-person, remote, or hybrid learning, families/guardians may submit, and school districts shall accommodate, requests for full-time remote learning,” the document notes.
“Such requests may include any service or combination of services that would otherwise be delivered on an in-person or hybrid schedule, such as instruction, behavioral and support services, special education and related services,” it continues.
“A family/guardian may request that some services be delivered entirely remotely, while other services follow the same schedule they otherwise would according to the district’s reopening plan,” according to the document.
Schools will also need procedures to transition students back to in-person learning, said Kevin Dehmer, Interim Commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Education (DOE).
Districts must communicate clearly with families in their native languages, ensure that all students receive the same quality of instruction and educational services, and report back to the DOE about student participation.
“We anticipated this will be an evolving document, shaped by continued input from stakeholders,” Dehmer said in a statement accompanying the guidance. “Our announcement today is about honoring that commitment to listen to stakeholders.”
Murphy said he thinks the remote learners will also support the health of those students who follow in-person instruction by helping to “decrease student density in schools and allow classroom spaces to stretch further for students and staff.”
Nonetheless, there are some 230,000 students across New Jersey for whom issues with Internet connectivity or a lack of access to digital devices will make remote learning impossible.
The state has pledged to bridge that digital divide, offering $10 million in state reserves from federal CARES Act Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds as well as $44 million from its Coronavirus Relief Fund (CRF).
Last week, Murphy sent out a plea “to philanthropic and corporate folks” to help resolve the issue.
Murphy calls again for federal aid
Citing a deficit of “plus or minus, probably plus, $20 billion,” the governor renewed his now-daily appeals to the U.S. Senate to provide “another significant slug of direct federal cash assistance” for the beleaguered state.
“This is a gotta-have to keep us solvent, to keep us delivering services, to keep frontline workers employed in our darkest hour of need as a state,” Murphy said. “Hear our call from across the aisle and up and down the country.”
When asked whether New Jersey has spent the $2.4 billion in CARES Act funding it has already received, the governor said, “in some cases it’s been spent; in other cases, it’s been allocated and not yet spent.”
Murphy pointed to federal strictures on the disposition of those assets, as well as plans to slowly disburse some of those funds over a number of months, while his general counsel Matt Platkin noted that New Jersey has been the only state to establish an oversight panel for the management of those dollars.
“It took a long time to get the guidance we needed from the feds in terms of how to spend that money,” Murphy said. “We have allocated all of it that we can. It’s a limited amount of money, and a fraction of what we need from the feds.”
Contact tracing barriers
After connecting 31 positive COVID-19 cases to a party in Middletown, Murphy said health officials are running into issues trying to identify how broadly those who’ve been infected there have spread.
If those in attendance fear legal repercussions for their behavior, the governor said they shouldn’t worry about it.
“Whatever activities these young people may have been engaged in is not our focus; stopping a potential outbreak of coronavirus is,” Murphy said.
“This is a race against the clock to ensure that everyone who may have been exposed to coronavirus is identified before they may infect someone else,” he said.
The only questions contact tracers will ask anyone at the party are: whether they have a safe place at home to isolate, with a private bathroom; whether they have any special needs, including access to food; if they are actively symptomatic; and whether they’ve gone anywhere where someone else could have been exposed.
“Everyone is looking out for the community at large,” the governor said.
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