Indoor sports in New Jersey to resume January 2; concerns over new virus variant linger

CAMDEN, New Jersey (WPVI) -- New Jersey high schools will be allowed to begin winter sports seasons this weekend, Gov. Phil Murphy said Wednesday.

Winter sports seasons were put on hold at the end of November as coronavirus cases in New Jersey surged. Murphy said Wednesday that teams can begin playing on Jan. 2, with restrictions.

Teams will be exempt from the state's current 10-person limit on indoor gatherings, but spectators won't be allowed to attend if the number of players, coaches and officials meets or exceeds the limit. That amounts to a de facto ban on spectators.

"We recognize that any continuance of the pause would likely mean that many sports seasons would have to be scrapped entirely," Murphy said Wednesday. "We do not wish to see that happen. As long as folks play it straight, they play it right and they do the right thing, we're open for business again."

The weekly average of new daily cases was rising and had topped 4,000 on the day Murphy suspended winter sports. This week the number was slightly below 4,000. In the last two weeks, the rate of transmission has dropped to .95, the lowest it has been since September.

With the first case of a new, possibly more contagious variant of the coronavirus in the U.S., New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy issued a word of caution Wednesday.

"We're assuming the worst, assuming that it's in our midst," said Murphy.

The new strain, currently wreaking havoc in the U.K., has not been found in the Garden State, but health officials say it wouldn't come as a surprise to see it.

New Jersey participates in what is known as strain surveillance, in which samples are sent to CDC labs for further testing.

Health officials also provided an update on vaccines.

So far, nearly 63,000 health care workers and residents of long term care facilities in the first phase of the rollout have been vaccinated.

When asked about vaccine rollout, health officials said the number may appear low, but they say some of the doses just got to health systems around the holiday.

Shots in arms are expected to pick up exponentially in the coming weeks.

"The year 2021 will unquestionably, will be better, but it will not be on day one or even on the first days, weeks, or months," Murphy said.

But, concerns over new virus variant has some fearful of what the new year will bring.

"The only concerns would be if the new strain will make the vaccine useless," said Adriano Martino from Old City.

On Good Morning America Wednesday, Children Hospital of Philadelphia Chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases, Doctor Paul Offit, addressed that very concern.

"It doesn't appear to be more virulent, and it does not appear to have mutated away from the vaccine," said Paul.

Health officials, including Philadelphia's health commissioner, now debate how contagious the new strain may be.

"We also think this new variant should not cause a more serious infection in people who get it, and the new variant should be prevented by the vaccine just like the virus that is circulating in Philadelphia now," said Dr. Thomas Farley.

Back in New Jersey, Murphy reflected on the year that wasn't and the hope for better days ahead.

"This virus has cut a deep scar across countless families, entire communities, and indeed our entire state," Murphy added.

Murphy and health officials on Wednesday reported 99 new deaths from COVID-19, giving the state nearly 17,000 confirmed deaths with roughly 2,000 more deemed probable.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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