New Jersey currently has the highest rate of new COVID-19 infections in the nation, likely fueled at least in part by the presence of large numbers of viral variants that state health officials are having a tough time quantifying due to the dearth of specialized testing.
Despite this, and the fact the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is characterizing the current level of community transmission in every New Jersey county as high, Gov. Phil Murphy on Monday expanded the numbers for limited types of gatherings. He increased the number who can gather outdoors to 200 and raised the capacity percentages at such large venues as sports arenas to 20% for all indoor facilities that seat at least 2,500 and 30% for outdoor venues. Both take effect Friday.
Murphy said he feels comfortable that these will still allow for appropriate social distancing and noted that all other indoor limits — for dining and businesses — remain.
“Yes, cases are rising. They’re up. Hospitalizations are up two (200) to 300 over the past week to 10 days,” Murphy said. “We predicted this, expected it. We did not change the overall indoor capacities so it’s still the gather limits are 25. The indoor dining, gyms and indoor entertainment are still at 50% and I suspect they’ll stay there. We did raise it on large venues …They’re doing an exceptional job and going to 20% does not come anywhere close to having people need to be within six feet of each other.”
According to the latest data from the CDC, New Jersey’s rate of coronavirus cases over the past week was 346 per 100,000 people. The only other state with a rate higher than 300 was Michigan, with 327 cases per 100,000. The total number of COVID cases reported by the state rose by 3,600 on Monday. A NJ Spotlight News analysis of case data shows that the total number of cases has increased by more than 31,000 since last Monday to a total of more than 900,000, or roughly 10% of the state’s population.
Finding reasons for NJ’s increased caseload
Murphy blamed the steady rise in cases since mid-February on several factors: the state’s population density, fatigue among the public to stay mainly at home, the prevalence of vaccine variants — some of which are more contagious or can cause more severe illness — and weather than has not allowed for widespread outdoor gatherings as in southern states. With the exception of Florida, the CDC’s map of recent case rates generally shows lower rates in the south and west than in the northeast.
Dr. Edward Lifschitz, medical director of the state Department of Health’s communicable disease service, said it is difficult to know exactly how many new cases — close to 31,000 over the past week, according to the CDC — are due to variants, because only about 2% of COVID samples are examined to determine variant strains. Still, he estimated that between 10% and 40% are likely due to the U.K. and New York variants. The U.K. variant has been named a variant “of concern” by the CDC because it is both easier to transmit and appears to be more deadly.
The state reported 671 cases of seven variants found in New Jersey as of Monday, 83% of which were the U.K. variant. While the overall numbers remain low, these strains are spreading rapidly in some spots. The number of variants reported rose by nearly one-third since last Wednesday in some locations, according to an analysis of state data.
Variants spread throughout NJ
The variants in New Jersey first emerged weeks ago, with the highest numbers in Ocean and Monmouth counties, and seven strains have since been identified with at least one case of some form in each of the 21 counties, the state data shows. Hudson, with six of the seven strains, was experiencing a rapid rise last week, but the quickest growth seems to have shifted since then to central and south Jersey. While total numbers are still low, cases with the U.K variant doubled since last Wednesday in Atlantic and Camden and grew 225% in Gloucester. Monmouth County saw a U.K. variant cases rise by one-quarter during that time, while reports of the New York variant grew 400%, from one to five cases.
With 132 cases, Ocean County has had by far the largest number as of Monday. But Lifschitz said it’s impossible to know if that is a true hotspot due to the lack of testing.
“We’re looking to increase the total amount of variant testing we’re doing at this point,” he said. “We are working to get that higher. We also want it to be more random, because the question came up as to whether Ocean really is having more variants or that it’s just being reported and at this point, I don’t have an exact answer because the testing isn’t random enough to get a good sense of that. We are hoping within the next couple of weeks we’re going to have a more widespread network that will give us better answers as far as these things go.”
Both the high case rate and the presence of variants underscore the need to get people immunized quickly. While some of the variants can spread more quickly than the original COVID-19 virus and research so far is limited, experts believe the existing vaccines are largely effective in preventing severe sickness and death in those exposed to mutations identified to date.
Murphy said the small scope of variant testing and its lack of randomness make it hard for the state to target Ocean or any other county with additional vaccine doses to try to prevent the continuing spread of variant cases.
State officials again did not provide data on the number of doses they are allocating to each county weekly. NJ Spotlight News has asked several times for this data during briefings and filed open public records requests with both the state Department of Health and governor’s office. The governor’s office deemed the request overly broad in denying it and referred us to the department of health. The DOH has not responded to our request.
Murphy said there is “no mystery associated with” vaccine allocations, but rather than quantifying the number of doses given to each county, state health commissioner Judith Persichilli said only that the “allocation by county varies every week, depending on how many doses we’re getting, and the allocation formula.” She repeated that the formula takes into account such criteria as equity, population, race and ethnicity, disease burden, deaths, social vulnerability of the population and how effective each county is at distributing its allocations.
Unexplained differences in vaccine rates
But there continue to be unexplained differences in the percentage of residents vaccinated by county. Cape May County, whose population is about 15% Black, Hispanic and Asian, has had an infection rate of nearly 9% and 209 deaths per 100,000 residents, leads all counties, with almost a quarter of its population fully vaccinated. Hudson County lags all counties in vaccinations, with little more than 10% of the population fully vaccinated, despite having a population that is 79% minority, an infection rate of close to 12% and 313 deaths per 100,000.
Murphy said the situation is going to continue to improve as the state continues to get more vaccine doses.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency will be opening a community vaccination center on the campus of the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark on Wednesday. This site is meant to serve vulnerable and medically underserved communities, including Newark, Paterson, Elizabeth and Hudson County, with up to 42,000 doses per week, although it will be open to anyone. These doses are in addition to the state’s allotment, with this week totals more than 490,000 doses, about 20% more than last week.
“This is a game changer,” Murphy said, adding he plans to visit the new FEMA site on Wednesday. “It’s not the only game changer, I mean, supplies are clearly going to go up.”
Overall, Murphy touted the state’s increasing vaccination numbers and rates, saying that the state has administered more than 4 million doses since mid-December and close to 1.5 million New Jerseyans have been fully vaccinated, meaning about two of every 10 adults has received full viral protection.
— Lilo H. Stainton contributed to this story.