Despite pleas from public health officials urging people to stay home and avoid large Thanksgiving gatherings, New Jersey officials are worried that last week’s holiday celebrations could trigger a new spike in COVID-19 cases.
If that’s the case, Gov. Phil Murphy said additional restrictions might be necessary to control the spread of the coronavirus in advance of the next round of seasonal festivities, including Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa and New Year’s.
“If we see a big spike coming out of Thanksgiving” over the next five to seven days “that will be of significant concern and we will have to revisit where we are (with public health restrictions.) We’re hoping that’s not the case, but we’re already at big numbers today,” Murphy said during his media briefing Wednesday.
Coronavirus cases climbing
Another 4,350 new COVID-19 cases were reported Wednesday, with more than 346,200 New Jerseyans testing positive for the virus since March, according to state data. At least 17,000 deaths have been tied to the disease.
But Murphy and other state officials said only time would tell the true impact of Thanksgiving celebrations, which the state sought to limit with stark warnings and additional restrictions on indoor gatherings in mid-November.
“We do expect that, given the volume of travel over the holiday weekend, that there might be concern for spikes,” state epidemiologist Dr. Christina Tan said Wednesday. But with an incubation period that can last up to two weeks, she said it was too early to tell for sure. “So we have to wait a little while,” Tan said.
According to the state’s COVID-19 hub, symptoms — which can range from fever to body aches to a loss of smell or taste — generally appear two to 14 days after someone has been exposed to the virus, although it is possible to be infected and contagious and still not experience symptoms. (The hub also includes a symptom checker designed to help people make decisions about testing and medical care.)
“So, yes, five to seven days after (exposure) would be when we would begin to expect to see an increase of cases if we could,” state communicable disease service director Dr. Edward Lifshitz said the Monday before Thanksgiving, “and the following week after that as well. And basically what we’re going to be looking for is just that, a bump up overall in cases.”
No Thanksgiving spike yet
So far, that doesn’t appear to have happened. New cases have ranged from between roughly 3,850 and 4,660 daily since Thanksgiving, according to state data, similar to the numbers reported the previous week. But state officials fear the daily case count could escalate as more people seek out testing in the wake of the Thanksgiving holiday.
“I encourage everyone to get tested and to get tested this week, especially if you (were) at a Thanksgiving table with people from outside your household or outside your bubble,” Murphy said Monday. “One of our greatest fears is that someone’s innocent Thanksgiving will ignite a hot spot. And that’s why we spent so much time urging you to set a smaller table this year,” he added, noting that many people appeared to comply.
The timing of the test is important, however. State health officials urge residents to wait five to seven days after a known or potential exposure to get screened, since the virus may not reveal itself in the body immediately. Individuals should also quarantine at home or in another safe location away from loved ones until they get tested and receive the results. The state can connect people with a hotel room and other support services during quarantine, if needed.
If the COVID-19 test results are negative, the state Department of Health recommends people remain in quarantine for another 24 hours or until any symptoms disappear. (After all, even common colds are contagious.) If the diagnosis is positive, the person should stay isolated for at least 10 more days after the results are received — regardless of whether they have symptoms or not.
New Jerseyans with medical questions about their diagnosis, or the disease itself, are urged to contact their doctor or the state poison control center, which set up a dedicated COVID-19 phone line — 800-962-1253 — and has fielded some 63,760 calls since March. They can also call the local public health department for additional directions and are urged to fully cooperate with contact tracers who may call with questions designed to help control community spread of the virus.
Testing before turkey
Coronavirus testing in general has expanded significantly since the start of the pandemic, when people waited hours in their cars to get screened at a drive-through site. State data shows a record 75,800 tests were administered on Nov. 16 alone, with some 71,200 recorded on Nov. 23 and another 72,600 on Nov. 24, suggesting people may have been getting tested in advance of Thanksgiving.
There are now more than 400 free public-testing locations — from hospitals to community clinics to drug stores — plus additional short-term pop-up sites. The state’s COVID-19 hub includes a search tool to help people find a location nearby. Residents can also call 211 for testing and other coronavirus information in English and Spanish.
The Department of Health has also launched a new COVID-19 testing initiative in nursing homes using 366,000 rapid-results tests provided by the federal government earlier this fall, Murphy announced Monday. The two-week pilot program requires regular screening of all staff and tests for residents who leave the facility for medical appointments or overnight visits and will help inform further guidance for long-term care facilities, which have been tied to nearly 43% of New Jersey’s coronavirus fatalities.
Murphy said this testing directive is also timed to identify potential impacts of the holiday. “As we come out of the Thanksgiving holiday when we fear a spike in cases among staff or among returning residents who went to be with their families, making sure that this virus is kept out of our long-term facilities is a paramount concern,” he said.