COVID-19 'raging' in New Jersey as leaders weigh next steps

Sunday, December 19, 2021

With COVID-19 "raging" in New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy said this latest surge could bring about the return of some restrictions.

New Jersey reported back-to-back days of over 6,000 new confirmed cases on Thursday and Friday, as infections have dramatically spiked in recent weeks, state data shows. This time last month, the state was reporting under 2,000 daily new cases.

The number of people hospitalized for COVID-19 has also been on the rise in the past month, from fewer than 700 in early November to over 1,700 currently, according to state data. COVID-19 patients in intensive care units and on ventilators are also up.

"The pandemic is still in our midst and unfortunately still raging," Murphy said during a press briefing Friday. "This thing is still with us, and sadly, the numbers are going up."

State health officials have pointed to the highly transmissible delta variant, indoor gatherings, holiday travel and waning immunity as fueling that trajectory. The new omicron variant, which early data suggests is more transmissible than delta, is another challenge.

A small percentage of omicron cases have been detected in New Jersey, though Murphy said it is likely more prevalent in the region. In its latest modeling, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that omicron makes up 13% of COVID-19 cases in the New York and New Jersey area, the highest in the nation.

The majority of cases and hospitalizations for COVID-19 have been in unvaccinated people, Murphy said. On average, 80% of COVID-19 patients in New Jersey's hospitals are unvaccinated, state health commissioner Judy Persichilli said earlier this week. Around 30% of state residents are not fully vaccinated, according to federal data.

Around 37% of eligible residents have received a booster dose so far, Persichilli said Wednesday during a press event promoting vaccination.

In an effort to get more residents inoculated and receive booster shots, the state has reopened three vaccine mega-sites so far this month, in addition to offering doses at pharmacies, supermarkets, community centers and hospitals.

Hospital leaders have also been urging vaccination and booster doses amid rising hospitalizations and the new omicron threat. At University Hospital in Newark, 39% of COVID-19 patients are fully vaccinated but not boosted as of Friday, according to President and CEO Dr. Shereef Elnahal. COVID-19 hospitalizations overall have also increased over 100% from two weeks ago, he said.

"We're facing new challenges and unanticipated challenges with the delta variant and the omicron variant," Elnahal said during Wednesday's press event. "We have a task ahead of us to communicate clearly to this community that boosting is necessary to keep folks safe."

Murphy said state officials will be keeping a close eye on breakthrough cases, among other metrics, as they weigh next steps.

"Breakthrough cases that are significant and severe -- significant in numbers and severe in their health implications -- that is something that we're going to be watching very closely," he told reporters Friday.

Residents could expect to see "a whole range of things happening," he said, such as proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test for events, "whether the state decides to do it or whether individual locations start to do it."

"My fear is that we're gonna get back into capacity limits in some form or another," he added.

One local leader has already implemented temporary vaccination requirements amid the surge.

Hoboken Mayor Ravi Bhalla, along with the city's Office of Emergency Management, issued an executive order this week mandating that any bar or restaurant participating in a bar crawl this weekend must require attendees to show proof of vaccination or be "subject to immediate closure, liquor license revocation or disciplinary suspension."

The order came ahead of a scheduled SantaCon bar crawl.

"If you're not vaccinated, our message is simple: don't bother participating in a bar crawl this weekend," Bhalla said in a statement.

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