Gov. Murphy’s exposure to COVID-19 was over outdoor drinks. Officials share few details of contact tracing

‘Folks, we can’t drop the ball here,’ said governor, who emphasized spread of virus through private home gatherings
Credit: (New Jersey Office of the Governor via AP)
Gov. Phil Murphy tells attendees at an event where he was speaking, Wednesday, Oct. 21 that he must leave to quarantine after just finding out that he’d been in contact with someone who had tested positive for COVID-19.

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy remained upbeat and appeared symptom-free the day after learning he had been exposed to senior staff members who tested positive for COVID-19, triggering an ongoing contact-tracing process to curb a potential outbreak within Murphy’s inner circle.

Details continue to emerge about the impact of the outbreak, which Murphy said stemmed from a small gathering Saturday night at an outdoor beer garden in Hoboken. Since then, two senior staff members have tested positive and the governor, first lady Tammy Murphy and an unknown number of staffers are in quarantine. No one has reported symptoms and during a virtual media briefing Thursday Murphy said the risk associated with the incident remains low.

Regardless of his personal experience, Murphy said the spread of the coronavirus remained limited at bars, restaurants and schools in New Jersey. Instead, he blamed private home gatherings — like dinner parties or to watch football games on TV — for fueling New Jersey’s rising coronavirus caseload. He also urged residents to avoid unnecessary interstate travel, as daily case numbers are also rising in neighboring states.

WATCH: Governor’s office COVID-19 outbreak has Murphy quarantined

“There’s no other way to put this. The numbers we are getting day to day are sobering,” Murphy said in a video call with reporters that he and cabinet members conducted from their homes Thursday. “Folks, we can’t drop the ball here. That goes especially when welcoming people into our homes,” he said.

Murphy has highlighted the need for New Jerseyans to continue with basic infection-protection measures — hand-washing, wearing masks, maintaining distance — as the state’s daily COVID-19 diagnoses continue to tick up, with more than 1,000 new cases in each of the last seven days, a rate of increase not experienced in months. Nearly 224,400 residents have tested positive for the disease, including close to 14,500 confirmed to have died as a result.

What we know and don’t know

As efforts continue to track the impact of the cases in Murphy’s office — and his own exposure, which was announced Wednesday after he abruptly left an event in Camden County — here is what has been established, and what remains unknown:

First contact was on Saturday night: State officials have identified a gathering at the Pilsener Haus & Biergarten, Hoboken as the point when Murphy was exposed to the coronavirus. The outdoor event, which lasted about 75 minutes, involved about six people — including Murphy and his wife Tammy — who removed their face masks to eat and drink. For the last 15 minutes, the group was joined by deputy chief of staff Mike DeLamater, who would later test positive.

Who has been tested? According to the governor’s office, DeLamater was tested Wednesday and discovered he was COVID-19-positive; it is not clear why he was tested or who alerted him to his condition. However, when DeLamater’s positive test became known, Murphy was pulled out of an event and he and Tammy Murphy were tested within hours; both were found to be negative. Murphy said he had also tested negative Monday as part of a regular testing protocol. His office would not share publicly details of that routine process. Later Wednesday, senior communications adviser Dan Bryan also tested positive.

What happened next? As soon as he learned that DeLamater had been diagnosed, Murphy said he was “taking himself off the field” and would quarantine at home “at least” through the end of the weekend. DeLamater and Bryan are also isolated, officials said, and neither has reported symptoms.

At his news conference Thursday, Murphy said his “entire front office” was working at home and several would also quarantine, if they were deemed to have had close contact with either DeLamater or Bryan. Several had also been tested, with negative results. The governor said most of these steps were “out of an abundance of caution,” given what he described as the limited risk, but noted “we’re not cutting any corners here folks.”

Is anyone else at risk? Officials in the governor’s office said contact tracing — the effort to track down possible exposures, educate individuals on their risk and control the spread of a disease — has begun, but declined to say who exactly will conduct this process. Traditionally it has been handled by local or county health departments, some of which recently have received additional staff from the state.

The contact tracing

Ideally, tracers will need to call every person who came into prolonged contact with DeLamater and Bryan since they were infected. Bryan accompanied Murphy to a press event Monday in South Orange, at which the governor announced his pick for state education commissioner, Angelica Allen-McMillan.

Murphy suggested Thursday that tracers might also be talking to attendees of a Friday night going-away party for his former chief of staff Matt Platkin, held at Drumthwacket, the governor’s mansion in Princeton. Murphy said that party was “well socially distanced” and well within the capacity limits of the three-sided tent where attendees gathered. He said neither DeLamater nor Bryan are showing symptoms and “last I checked … continue to be in largely good shape.”

State health commissioner Judy Persichilli also announced Thursday that the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention just updated its contact risk-analysis guidance to note that someone could be infected if they spend a total of 15 minutes within 6 feet of a COVID-19-positive individual over 24 hours. In the past, experts thought it required close contact for 15 minutes straight to transmit the virus, she said.

Persichilli said transmission is also impacted by the presence of symptoms, the surrounding environment — for example, whether it inside or outdoors — the presence of a crowd and other factors. “What this all emphasizes is just how important case investigation and contact tracing really is,” she said. Unfortunately, contact tracers are still unable to obtain useful details from infected individuals at least half the time, she said.