Since September, daily coronavirus infection rates in the state have been on the rise, confirming officials and experts’ fears of an uptick in new cases with the onset of winter. At the center of the autumn surge is Lakewood, in Ocean County.
This week, the township of just over 100,000 rose to the top of the state’s list of municipalities with the most positive cases as a percentage of population — 54.4 per 1,000 residents, according to an NJ Spotlight News analysis, or just over 5% of the township. That represents a doubling of coronavirus infection just since August.
The largest of Ocean County’s 33 municipalities, and one of the fastest growing towns in the state, Lakewood has been in the spotlight since the pandemic began in March. The municipality has a large Orthodox Jewish community — one of the largest on the East Coast — whose traditions and customs are rooted deeply in social congregation. In the first weeks after Gov. Phil Murphy’s statewide lockdown on March 21, police in Lakewood broke up multiple large gatherings among members of the Orthodox Jewish community, even as local cases soared, and — by the end of that month — at least five rabbis succumbed to the disease. The coronavirus death toll in Lakewood has reached 204, the highest in Ocean County.
What’s driving the spike?
The current spike comes on the heels of the Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot holidays, all of which emphasize family and community coming together — just the kind of small and multigenerational family gatherings that Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield warned last week are becoming an “increasing threat” across the country, where in many states positive cases are also on the rise.
Additionally, Lakewood’s 6,000-student public school system opted for full-time, in-person teaching, along with many of the township’s some 100 private schools. This is in stark contrast to the majority of New Jersey’s public school systems, which have integrated virtual learning completely or partially. Since Sept. 1, 29 staff and students from 10 of Lakewood’s public schools and district office have tested positive for the coronavirus, including seven last week alone, according to Dawn Hiltner, a spokesperson for the Lakewood Education Association, the local teacher’s union, and the New Jersey Education Association. At least two private girls’ schools have been shut down temporarily.
“We have been urging the district to consider a hybrid model,” Hiltner said. “So that schools will be less crowded, easier to clean, and thereby safer.”
Statewide, school outbreaks remain low. In his coronavirus briefing on Thursday, Murphy noted that, of the state’s nearly 3,000 public and private schools, only 22 outbreaks, and 83 linked cases, have been reported. Such a low rate “six weeks into the school year,” he said, “is well within any reasonable expectation that we had.”
New Jersey’s already beleaguered efforts at contact tracing have also been particularly challenged in Lakewood, where, according to state Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli, fewer than 50% of people who tested positive have been willing to cooperate with the state’s contact tracing corps. To improve Ocean County’s efforts, the state sent, in the last week of September, an additional 20 contact tracers.
Ocean County’s health department spokesman Brian Lippai said the county welcomes the help. “Expanding our contact tracing team will help with reaching out to more potential close contacts quicker,” he said, “so we can make those important recommendations and any actions that would protect themselves and the community.”
Scalpel or blunt instrument?
On Oct. 2, in an effort to more directly address Lakewood’s mounting outbreak and to assuage community reticence toward the state’s work at curbing it — Murphy took his now biweekly coronavirus briefing on the road to Ocean County. Along with Persichilli and other members of his administration, Murphy sat with county health and public safety officials, as well as Lakewood municipal and religious leaders. The governor flatly rejected a question about imposing a quarantine specific to the county, or communities within it, pointing out that “we are all one New Jersey family.”
But on Thursday morning, in response to a similar question during an interview on CNBC, Murphy used an analogy that he’s been increasingly reiterating in recent days. “We’re less likely to use the blunt instruments that we used in March and April,” he said, “and much more likely to use a scalpel and go into a particular community.”
For now, Murphy’s scalpel solution for Ocean County has been to send thousands of additional test kits there, and to expand testing sites.
It is hard to ignore, as Persichilli put it at the Oct. 2 roundtable, the negative impacts of Lakewood’s “large gatherings — weddings, funerals — where social distancing and wearing masks may not have been consistently followed.” But it is also true that the state’s ramping up of testing and tracing in the township will feed the counterpoint — often used by President Trump — that more testing only reveals more cases, not an outbreak.
Unfortunately, the calculus is not that simple. More testing doesn’t necessarily predicate a higher positivity rate. Testing across the state has increased since the beginning of October, and the daily positivity rate — the percentage of all tests performed each day that are positive — has hovered at just under 3%. Unpacking that number by town, however, is revealing. Lakewood’s last reported daily positivity rate, on Sept. 26, was 27%, nearly 10 times the state average, and its 5,639 current cases make up 36% of Ocean County’s total.
A fine line for finger pointing
It is one thing to chastise the odd “knucklehead” for flouting mask wearing or throwing a college house party, as Murphy often does. But it is something entirely different to single out a religious group that is as vulnerable to hateful speech and acts as the Orthodox Jewish community, whether that’s in Lakewood, Brooklyn or anywhere else in the world.
At the Oct. 2 roundtable, Duvi Honig, the founder of the Orthodox Jewish Chamber of Commerce, noted that he and other community leaders were growing increasingly concerned about anti-Semitic attacks as testing efforts in the township increase. “Our numbers are much higher,” Honig said. “But we’re doing increased testing to stay safe, not to show the media, or be misrepresented, that our numbers are much higher.”
“We cannot allow anyone who has ill-intentions to use this as a cover, whether it’s anti-Semitism, whether it’s dividing us,” Murphy responded. “We will accept none of that.”
At a committee meeting on Thursday night, Lakewood’s mayor, Raymond Coles, noted that the township was working diligently to reduce the spread of the virus. “As far as businesses, whenever we receive a complaint, or if the police or anybody notices it, we do speak to the business owner and ask them to ensure that the proper distancing and mask wearing is observed,” Coles said. “I know in the schools, both public and private, there is the same attention paid to that.”
At the same time, the Ocean County Health Department issued an advisory, noting that its staff “will continue to work through the evening to address this rapidly changing and evolving situation.” Lippai, the department spokesperson, added, “We hope this latest uptick has people realizing how easy it can be for a town, county or state to take a step backwards if we fail to stick to the game plan by everyone doing their part.”
Nevertheless, it was clear in Murphy’s coronavirus briefing earlier Thursday that Lakewood loomed large in his mind. “There have been some big realities,” he said generally, before focusing the thought on one place. “I will say that our working relationship with elected leaders, faith leaders, and others in Lakewood has been outstanding,” he continued. “But there’s been no escaping the fact that that’s a hot spot.”