Op-Ed: Governor Emphasizes How New Jersey Is Using Data to Fight the Coronavirus

Decisions in NJ’s battle against pandemic, Gov. Phil Murphy writes, are based on data that allows measurement of ‘when, and where, our efforts are working’
Credit: Edwin J. Torres/ Governor's Office
Gov. Phil Murphy

Our fight against the coronavirus is nothing less than a war, and thus requires a strategy to win. And, in New Jersey, our strategy — and every decision we make regarding the virus — is informed, guided, and anchored by data.

From informing our decisions on social distancing to predicting this virus’ spread, data is enabling us to govern based on facts and to measure when, and where, our efforts are working. Every day I go on television and have the grim task of sharing the growing number of infected New Jerseyans and rising death toll from the virus. Having those numbers helps me to convey — and for people to understand — the seriousness of this crisis and the direct relationship between observing the stay-at-home mandate, on the one hand, and the spread of the virus, on the other.

Relying on data in no way means this is, in any way, abstract. These are precious lives, each and every one of them. But numbers matter, as do the facts underpinning those numbers.

We have gone from seeing newly identified coronavirus cases rising at 45% a day to now just over 8% within three weeks of enacting our most aggressive measures. This means that our efforts to flatten the curve are starting to pay off, even with the lag time in getting testing results back from the labs. There will be anomalous days with spikes and troughs — but the overall curve is beginning to flatten. Our job now is to keep flattening it to the point where our day-over-day increase is zero.

But even if the rate is slowing, the number of infected is rising and, as a result, so too are the number who are hospitalized and, tragically, who are dying.

Enabling efficient, effective preparations

Surely, data is not a cure. However, data helps us prepare as efficiently and effectively as possible so that no one goes without needed doctors and nurses or supplies.

By tracking the daily number and location of those who test positive and those who are hospitalized through the state COVID-19 information hub, we know our current situation and are able to predict how the virus may spread over the next week. By tracking the symptoms listed by New Jerseyans anonymously using the portal’s self-assessment, or by seeing the questions being asked online, we can anticipate hot spots. And, by using data from China and Italy, we can better inform our policies of aggressive social distancing.

We are also getting daily reports from around the state on donations and availability of personal protective equipment, allowing us to route supplies to where they are most needed. Data on supply and demand guides the Office of Emergency Management to distribute supplies, whether from the federal government, generous donors, or purchased by the state. Where there is a need for a ventilator, we can run a report and see where we have one available and transport it quickly enough to save a life. Such information also allows us to predict where we will need equipment and support next week so we can get ahead and ensure that no one goes without.

We have built a strong data science and modeling program to inform our work. Our data scientists — who include members of our Department of Health, the New Jersey Office of Innovation, and leading experts from universities — model both best and worst-case scenarios so we can plan for all eventualities. Thanks to them, we know that had we failed to act, had we not closed schools and businesses and ordered people to stay home, millions of New Jerseyans would have become sick.

This war is being fought on two fronts — both health and economic. So, we have also asked businesses for input on what kinds of support they need. Based on that data, we developed a series of grants and loan programs, and then gave businesses an eligibility wizard to know which programs they would qualify for. Over 10,000 people used it and signed up for those programs in just over an hour.

The general public has never before been part of a detailed military strategy but then we’ve never faced an enemy like this. Now, each of us has been drafted into the fight, and likewise each of us has a role to play in our ultimate victory, one data point at a time.