Murphy Sets Up Coronavirus Task Force, State Health Officials Say Risk in NJ ‘Is Still Low’

Health commissioner Judith Persichilli says ‘coronavirus right now pales in comparison’ to impact of flu

As the crisis over the novel coronavirus deepens in China, with spikes both in the number of cases and deaths, Gov. Phil Murphy on Monday announced the creation of a task force to prepare for its anticipated spread here.

Murphy and others, though, sought to allay fears of a severe public health crisis in the state.

“I have to emphasize that the risk right now, certainly to the United States but definitely to the residents of New Jersey, is still low,” said state health commissioner Judith Persichilli, whom Murphy named as the chair of a new Coronavirus Task Force.

The new strain of coronavirus that arose in Wuhan, a city of 11 million in central China, is one of the fastest-spreading viruses globally, according to health experts. There are more than 17,000 cases worldwide, most of them in China, where there have been more than 360 deaths.

There are 11 confirmed cases in the United States, spread among five states. No cases have been reported in New Jersey, but three possible cases are under investigation in New York.

Authorities also said that Newark Liberty International Airport is one of 11 airports in the nation where flights from China will be allowed to land, and passengers on those flights will be screened and, if necessary, quarantined.

“We’ve been very proactive, we have teams in place ready to go,” Persichilli said. “There will be screening at the Newark Airport. We are prepared to handle quarantine of any person that comes in.”

Coordinating with hospitals

Also represented on the task force are the State Police, the Office of Homeland Security, the attorney general and the Department of Education. The group will coordinate with hospitals and other health care facilities as well as federal authorities and the Port Authority, which runs Newark Airport.

Also Monday, Princeton University has told students who recently returned from China to “self-quarantine” for 14 days from the time they were last in China, a step the university said was being taken as a precaution. The number of students affected by the order is more than 100, according to various news reports.

The precaution matches a general advisory issued for travelers by state public health officials.

“If you’ve traveled to China and return from that travel, we would urge residents to monitor their symptoms for 14 days,” said Dr. Lisa McHugh, program coordinator for infectious disease epidemiology for the state health department. “If you develop symptoms, again we would urge you to contact your health care provider, and we’ll work through them to determine if the individual should be tested at the Centers for Disease Control.”

Health officials note, though, that the new coronavirus is not currently their top concern here at home.

“When you compare it to something like the flu — when we have over 4,000 confirmed cases and two pediatric deaths in New Jersey — coronavirus right now pales in comparison,” Persichilli said.

“We know that people die from influenza and from the measles, and from other types of infections that are here,” said Miryam Wahrman, director of the Microbiology Research Lab at William Paterson University.

Experts advise taking basic precautions

The experts’ advice for enhancing protection against disease goes back to the basics.

“Wash your hands appropriately, after using the bathroom and before touching your eyes, your nose, your mouth or before eating,” Wahrman said.

“If you sneeze or cough, make sure you’re doing it into a tissue or into your sleeve,” said McHugh. “And most importantly, if you’re sick, please make sure you stay home from work or school.”

New Jersey-based Johnson & Johnson is one of many companies working to fast-track a vaccine for the virus. They’re drawing from lessons learned in the successful development of a vaccine against Ebola, the deadly hemorrhagic fever that has killed thousands in Africa.

“For Ebola, we had already a vaccine on the shelf which we could start from,” said Dr. Paul Stoffels, vice chairman and chief scientific officer for the company. “Here we didn’t have the information on the virus. This is a new virus. So we need to start the biology and the biology work. But that’s going pretty fast. At the moment, we are already in the stages that we are experimenting with the different constructs of a new vaccine.”

It could take six to eight months before the vaccine clears the clinical trial phase, at which point it could be administered even without full approval by the federal Food and Drug Administration. Johnson & Johnson is also working on medication to treat those already infected, experimenting with anti-viral medications used to treat things like HIV and AIDS.