Despite vaccines, latest models predict rising COVID-19 before slow decline

Murphy says third wave means ‘long, hot summer’
Credit: (NJDOH)
The worst-case scenario, according to new predictive modeling from the state Department of Health

New Jersey is now in its third wave of the coronavirus pandemic, according to state officials, with new COVID-19 cases likely to continue climbing for another two to six weeks — possibly even surpassing some records — before a long, slow decline that could last well into the summer.

New predictive modeling from the state Department of Health shows that, under the worst-case scenario, both COVID-19 infection levels and related hospitalizations could keep rising through mid-May before peaking at more than 8,000 new cases and 3,600 hospitalizations daily. It also predicts these metrics could hover near this level for close to a month before gradually falling to 6,000 diagnoses and 2,700 hospitalizations a day by Aug. 1.  

“Under this scenario, we’re in for a long, hot summer,” Gov. Phil Murphy said at his regular pandemic media briefing Wednesday. “So please God, this is not what we have to live through.”

Since the pandemic began in New Jersey in March 2020, the highest daily case count was 7,880 on Jan. 13, according to NJ Spotlight News tracking of state data. The state currently averages 4,400 new cases daily, with just over 2,000 related hospitalizations. The health department modeling shared Wednesday did not include data for fatalities; more than 24,500 New Jerseyans have already died from the virus.

Governor suggests more moderate scenario likely

Murphy pointed Wednesday to a more moderate scenario in the predictive modeling, which, he said, “feels to me the closest to reality.” According to that mathematical prediction, cases and hospitalizations could peak in mid-April and at lower numbers, with roughly 5,500 daily diagnoses and 2,700 hospitalizations. By the end of July, this model predicts a daily case count of 2,500 and hospitalizations of around 1,200.

Credit: (NJDOH)
The moderate scenario envisaged by state Department of Health predictive modeling

“Remember, these are projections, they are not certainties,” said Murphy, a first-term Democrat seeking reelection in November.

“Through our behavior, we can change the trajectory of the models,” Murphy added, underscoring the need for people to wear masks, keep social distance, get vaccinated and continue to take precautions, as needed. “We’ve crushed the curves twice now. Let’s do it a third — and, hopefully, final — time.”

READ: Predictive modeling suggests COVID-19 could be at peak impact on NJ health care system

While state officials have raised cautionary flags recently about rising case numbers, the Department of Health modeling stands in contrast to Murphy’s previous public message about the declining impact of the pandemic. The state’s COVID-19 vaccine efforts are expanding — some 4.2 million doses have been administered since December, with more than 1.5 million people fully immunized — and Murphy had suggested things would “look much better” by Memorial Day or July 4, when vaccination coverage in the state is expected to be widespread.

The second wave peaked in January

At the height of the second wave in New Jersey, new daily cases peaked in mid-January and then declined sharply. But in early March infection rates started to rise again, followed more recently by a rise in hospitalizations. New deaths have so far remained steadier. On Wednesday Murphy attributed the increase to the growing role of coronavirus variants, which have been discovered in all 21 counties and, in some cases, appear to spread more rapidly than the initial form of the coronavirus. He also blamed what he called “on-again, off-again” weather that keeps people indoors, where the infection is more likely to spread.

“Look, there is no other way to put it — this virus continues to spread, and this pandemic is not over,” Murphy said. “And we have pandemic fatigue and misinformation and denial to contend with.”

State health commissioner Judy Persichilli said new daily infections are now rising across the state and that all regions are now in the orange, or high-risk category, according to the state’s COVID-19 Activity Level Report, which is designed to help local officials respond effectively. Last week several regions were still coded yellow, warning of a rising risk. Of the roughly 26,000 tests administered Saturday, 14.26% were found to be positive, officials said.

Watching trends in hospitalizations, deaths

Persichilli also expressed concern about the growing number of COVID-19 hospitalizations and predicted deaths would also trend upward as spread continues. While not close to the levels experienced during the first wave last spring — when hospital beds and equipment, like ventilators, were in short supply — new hospitalizations have grown by 28% over the past two weeks, she said.

“We cannot forget the dark days of April last year, where we saw a peak of 8,270 individuals in the hospital,” and faced bed and equipment shortages, Persichilli said. Resources have since been stockpiled, she said. “And we don’t expect hospitalizations to rise to those levels; we must work together to ensure we don’t go backwards.”

Persichilli praised the public for its commitment to containing the virus last year but added, “We have to redouble our efforts. There is still uncertainty ahead with this relentless virus that continues to change.”

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