Coronavirus Update: 193,422 Infections, 14,195 Related Deaths; Contact Tracing Struggles, School Plans, Casino Smoking Banned


Six months after the state saw its first case of the global pandemic, New Jerseyans head into the final weekend of summer with tentative hopes for a safe start to the school year.

By Matt Skoufalos | September 4, 2020

NJDOH COVID-19 Dashboard – 9-4-20. Credit: NJ Pen.

Six months to the day of confirming its first case of novel coronavirus (COVID-19) in the state, another 478 New Jersey residents have tested positive for the virus, bringing the statewide total to 193,422 cases, Governor Phil Murphy reported Friday.

Sadly, seven more residents have perished from complications related to the virus, bringing the statewide death toll to 14,195 lives lost during the pandemic.

In addition to those lab-confirmed fatalities, the state has acknowledged another 1,783 probable COVID-19-related deaths.

Rate of transmission (Rt) up to 1.03, spot positivity highest in South Jersey

The statewide average of COVID-19 spot positivity testing stood at 1.81 percent August 31.

As ever, it remains highest in South Jersey, at 3.31 percent.

Rt, the variable that describes the seven-day, rolling-average rate of transmission of new COVID-19 cases, hit 1.03 from samples taken September 2.

An Rt figure greater than 1.0 means that each new COVID-19 patient is infecting more than one other person, on average, and the spread of the virus is increasing.

Since its mid-April COVID-19 spike, the highest reported RT in New Jersey was 1.48, recorded August 1. The lowest was 0.62, recorded June 9.

NJ Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli – COVID-19 Briefing 9-4-20. Credit: NJ Pen.

Long-term care accounts for half of all deaths, a fifth of those infected

Throughout New Jersey, 466 people currently are hospitalized with a case of COVID-19: 249 have tested positive for COVID-19, and 217 are awaiting confirmation of their symptoms.

Among those hospitalized patients, 95 are in intensive or critical care, and 40 of the ICU and critical-care patients (42 percent) are on ventilators.

Across the state, 664 long-term care (LTC) centers have reported at least one case of COVID-19, and 159 are dealing with an active outbreak. LTCs account for 38,254 infected patients and staff in New Jersey, or 20 percent of total cases.

That includes 24,903 residents and 13,351 staffers sickened by the virus, as well as 7,112 lab-confirmed resident deaths (50 percent of the statewide total) and 121 facility-reported staff deaths.

Of 656 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. Nine veterans presently are hospitalized with COVID-19, and 242 have recovered from the virus.

At state-run psychiatric facilities, 213 of 1,194 patients and 516 staff members have tested positive for COVID-19. Thirteen patients and seven staffers have died from complications related to the virus.

To date, 57 New Jersey children aged 1 to 18 have been diagnosed with pediatric multisystem inflammatory syndrome, New Jersey Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli said.

All those pediatric patients have tested positive for an active COVID-19 infection or the presence of COVID-19 antibodies, indicating exposure to the virus. No deaths have been associated with this syndrome in New Jersey, although several children have been hospitalized during their treatment.

File photo – NJ COVID-19 contact tracing dashboard. Credit: NJDOH.

Contact tracing remains a struggle

Even as New Jersey continues to grow its community contact tracing corps to a planned 30 tracers per 100,000 residents, the program is struggling with a segment of the population that refuses to participate.

The state has now hired 1,769 contact tracers, boosting its average to 19.9 tracers per 100,000 people across New Jersey.

Every county except Atlantic County has reached the 15-tracers-per-100,000-residents threshold, Murphy said.

Yet more than half of all people notified by the program that they have potentially been exposed to the virus (53 percent) refuse to provide contacts for tracers to follow up. One-fifth of all people called don’t even answer the phone, Persichilli said.

“Sharing information about who you might have been around helps protect not only those people, but also their families,” the commissioner said.

“Once those individuals are notified, they can take steps to get tested and quarantine themselves from household members, who may be elderly, or have underlying medical conditions,” she said.

“You owe it to them to help to keep them safe as well,” Persichilli said.

She added that concerns over privacy or fear of consequences for sharing contacts shouldn’t influence the decision of those called to participate.

Contact tracers are not seeking to expose those who’ve potentially been exposed to the virus, and can offer access to services including job protection, food, or help safely quarantining. All information shared with a contact tracer is confidential.

Update on school reopening plans, COVID-19-related closures

With students set to return to classes next week, the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE) has received 804 school reopening plans, Murphy said.

Of those, 607 plans have been finalized, 180 have been returned for revisions, and 17 have not yet been reviewed.

Among the 607 finalized plans, 354 models (58 percent) offer a hybrid of remote learning and in-person instruction; 172 (28 percent) are fully remote, 59 (10 percent) will offer in-person instruction exclusively, and 22 (4 percent) will pursue a combination of all or some of the above.

Of those plans returned for revision, NJDOE “has kept an open, active line of communication” with the districts involved, Murphy said.

NJ Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli – school closure COVID-19 plan. Credit- NJ Pen.

When students return to school next week, questions persist about the conditions under which in-person instruction might be halted by a COVID-19 outbreak. Persichilli ran down the circumstances in which facilities may switch to fully remote instruction to mitigate the impact of an outbreak.

One confirmed case in a school won’t by itself be enough to shut the building down. Neither will two or more confirmed cases isolated within a single classroom, nor two or more cases “linked to a clear, alternative exposure that is unrelated to the school setting,” according to New Jersey Department of Health (NJDOH) guidance.

In the event of two or more cases within a two-week period, “linked together by some activity within the school,” the local health department will determine whether a school should close.

In the event of a significant outbreak affecting multiple students, staff, or families within the school community, schools will close for two weeks and the local health department will investigate.

Schools could close for longer if the NJDOH Regional Risk Matrix identifies a “very high risk of community transmission,” according to the guidance.

NJ prohibits smoking inside casinos. Credit: NJ Pen.

Indoor smoking prohibited in casinos

Finally, having been asked why casinos would permit smoking indoors—given the fact that people must remove a face covering to do so, or that the smoke could potentially spread COVID-19—the governor announced an executive ban of it Friday.

“We have looked closely at the science, and agree with the experts who have concluded that allowing smoking is too big a risk to take,” he said.

Read our ongoing round-up of COVID-19 coverage here.

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