Fine Print: How NJ’s New Color-Coded COVID Map Is Meant to Help Schools Assess Fall Reopening Plans

Map divides the state into six regions and indicates the level of disease ‘activity’ in each

Title: COVID-19 Activity Level Report

Source: The New Jersey Department of Health produces the report based on coronavirus test results submitted by laboratories and health care providers to the state’s Communicable Disease Reporting and Surveillance System, which is used to track dozens of infectious conditions including chicken pox, Lyme disease and influenza.

What it is: The color-coded weekly report helps public health officials understand how quickly an infectious disease is spreading in the region. The DOH added COVID-19 data to the system — and linked it to the CommCare online platform used by coronavirus contact tracers statewide — to help local health officials better assist school districts as they craft reopening plans.

What it shows: Surveillance reports showing the spread of COVID-19 will be posted weekly. The system divides the state into six regions: Northwest, Northeast, Central West, Central East, Southwest and Southeast, each of which includes multiple counties. The level of disease “activity” is illustrated in four colors: green for low spread, yellow for moderate, orange for high transmission and red for very high. For the week ending Aug. 8, the Northeast and Northwest showed a low spread and the rest of the state was listed with moderate transmission.

The disease “activity” designation is based on a scoring system that considers three factors, all calculated to reflect seven-day averages for the regions: the case rate, or the number of new cases per 100,000 people; the number of patients with symptoms of “COVID-like illness” at hospitals emergency departments; and the positivity rate, or percent of COVID-19 tests that are positive in a region.

“This regionalized system will provide a view of transmission more locally and help inform decisions on the ground,” DOH Commissioner Judy Persichilli said last Wednesday in announcing the development. (Massachusetts recently released a similar map, but with risk broken down by municipality.)

Any other DOH help for schools? State officials also released on Wednesday recommendations to help local public health departments advise K-12 schools on their reopening strategies. (Gov. Phil Murphy is permitting districts to begin with remote learning if they cannot safely provide in-person education.)

The recommendations use the same color-coded risk assessments of COVID spread as the COVID-19 Activity Level Report. They remind school officials to have plans in place for each scenario, including strategies to communicate with parents and other officials, to set up testing for students and staff and send them home if needed, and to effectively disinfect school buildings. When the risk level is red — or very high — schools are advised to move to all-remote learning.

And the recommendations reiterate the importance of proper hand-washing, mask use, and social distancing, and outline protocols for contact tracing if a student or staff member tests positive. They also remind educators that choir and music practice are particularly risky, since the virus is transmitted through droplets in the breath, and encourage districts to consider moving these activities outside to mitigate the risks. And they warn against sharing sports equipment.

Other diseases under surveillance: The state’s communicable disease online surveillance system, or CDRSS, has been used for years to help public health officials control outbreaks of both common and rare infectious diseases. With some conditions — like anthrax, measles and rabies — doctors must also contact their local health department immediately, even if the diagnosis has not been confirmed. Other diseases, like HIV, are reported to the state through other systems.