Coronavirus Update: State Adds Beds, Nurses as Cases Climb; Seeks Federal Block Grants for Financial Relief


Governor Murphy says the disease could spike unemployment to 20 percent, necessitating some $3 to 4 trillion in national relief. Officials are appealing for flexible block grants to help those financially affected.

By Matt Skoufalos | March 18, 2020

NJ Department of Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli. Credit: NJ PEN.

As the incidence of novel coronavirus (COVID-19) continues to climb in New Jersey, state leaders are seeking clearer paths to aid money, building capacity to test and house additional patients as the disease surges, and activating healthcare workers to deal with the additional workload.

The total count of COVID-19 cases climbed to 427 Wednesday, with two cases removed from the total count because they were out-of-state residents.

(In Camden County, the local case total hit eight, with four new cases opened recently.)

Five New Jersey residents have perished after contracting the virus.

Slightly more than half (about 55 percent) of all coronavirus patients require hospitalization, and much of the country “will have far too few hospital beds” if the virus continues to spread, said New Jersey Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli in a press conference.

In response, the state is preparing an additional 260 hospital beds—199 in the north, 11 in central Jersey, and 50 in the south—and Persichilli said 227 more beds should come online in the next few weeks.

The commissioner said that Underwood Memorial Hospital in Woodbury would become “a general acute care hospital to absorb the surge we’re expecting,” accommodating 300 beds under the direction of Inspira Health.

The U.S. Army Corps is also drawing up plans for expanding New Jersey’s hospital capacity, Governor Phil Murphy said at the conference.

Persichilli also ordered all nurses with active or inactive licenses “to call for action,” and certified that paramedics can be used to supplement additional nursing staff within hospitals as needed. Medical students are also being connected with local health departments to support their needs as available, she said.

One of the first state testing sites for symptomatic individuals will open in Bergen County on Friday. Priority will be given to healthcare workers and first responders, and the site should be able to collect 2,500 specimens a week, Persichilli said.

The commissioner said officials are paying close attention to COVID-19 patients admitted to hospitals from nursing homes “because of the high-risk nature of those individuals.”

NJ DOH COVID-19 Dashboard – 3-18-20. Credit: NJPEN.

Relief aid could top $3-4 trillion nationally

Murphy said that with national unemployment expected to spike as high as 20 percent—double the rate during the recession a decade ago—any economic stimulus package would have to reach “the $3 to 4 trillion range” across the country.

“New Jersey will happily take our fair share” of that aid, the governor said. “You can’t do what we have done [in terms of mandatory closings]  and not have a dramatic impact, not just on people’s lives, but the health of the state’s revenues.”

In response, Murphy said New Jersey needs access to flexible block grants “as fast and as sure as possible,” to help small businesses and individual residents navigate their loss of income.

They may include grants and forgivable loans modeled after those issued during Superstorm Sandy, and could be supplemental to any relief proposed through the state Small Business Administration (SBA).

Such aid also could include operating funds for bus and transit, and “real relief at the individual level, particularly those who are struggling and need help,” Murphy said.

The state on Wednesday expanded relief efforts for those already receiving assistance, including:

  • providing an extra $100 per child per month to child care providers to cover children in the state child care subsidy program, offering grant funding to cover cleaning supplies or services for child care centers, and removing the parent copay for children in the state child care subsidy program;
  • extending 60 days of WorkFirst New Jersey cash assistance to individuals whose cases are up for renewal in March or April; extending all Emergency Assistance cases through April 30; and exempting WorkFirst New Jersey and SNAP participants from “all adverse actions for non-compliance” with the programs’ work requirements;
  • covering COVID-19 testing, visits for testing, and testing-related serviced for Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) participants and waiving the costs for those services; covering 90-day supplies of maintenance medications and early prescription refills for Medicaid and CHIP patients; directing hospitals to waive cost-sharing for uninsured, charity-care-eligible individuals for medically necessary testing and testing-related services associated with COVID-19.


Nonetheless, “the block grants are A-Number-One in terms of what we need to shore up our finances,” Murphy said.

Lieutenant Governor Sheila Oliver said block grants are necessary because New Jersey’s access to current federal resources is “hampered and hand-tied by regulation.” By appealing to regional federal administrators, Oliver said she’s hoping the state will be permitted “to invest resources where they’re needed without regulatory restraint.

“We want to broaden the universe of New Jerseyans who are eligible for those things,” including lowering eligibility requirements for food stamps and offering greater flexibility in the delivery of benefits.

Oliver encouraged any needy resident to complete an “anonymous and confidential application” with the state Division of Housing and Community Resources  “for the full menu of services that you could be eligible for.”

Governor Phil Murphy updates New Jerseyans on the COVID-19 response, March 18, 2020. Credit: NJ PEN.

Cut down on social gathering

The governor continued to hammer on the need for people to isolate themselves and limit the size of social gatherings.

He intimated that additional enforcement would be forthcoming for people who disregard the order.

“If people are gathering, we don’t care where they’re gathering, it’s a public health concern,” Murphy said.

“We need everyone to take personal responsibility to do their part to flatten the curve. You can see by today’s positive tests, we’re not there yet by a long shot.

“I don’t want to break up a funeral, but the thing is we mean it when we say 50 people,” he said. “Anywhere a group gathers is a place where coronavirus easily spreads. A shout-out to our youth: you can still carry and spread the coronavirus. You cannot run the risk where there may be multiple generations gathering.”

The governor specifically thanked faith leaders for “embracing fully the need for social distancing,” noting that the concept “is in fact the opposite of what many of our faiths teach.”

He praised the faith community for helping carry important public health messages to their congregants, and promised to “seek out creative ways to mitigate their pain and ensure their long-term health.”

“We know that canceling a service or closing a sanctuary entirely is not an easy call,” Murphy said. “We need all walks of our life, and in this case, especially our faith leaders, to adhere to the 50-person maximum gathering.”

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


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