No masks, no emergency and far fewer cases. NJ winds down pandemic response

Republicans argue the COVID-19 emergency is long gone, while many others say they’re good with state response
Credit: (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
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New Jersey is clearly winding down its COVID-19 response infrastructure, with vaccination mega-sites now reducing operations and a legislative strategy in place to scale back Gov. Phil Murphy’s pandemic-related powers in the months to come.

The state’s special coronavirus adviser, former state epidemiologist Dr. Eddy Bresnitz, has also returned to the private sector. And while many recognize the virus is still among us, it seems people are comfortable with this evolution in the public response.

New COVID-19 case numbers have declined significantly in New Jersey since the peak early this year, hospitalizations are at a level not seen in nine months and fatalities are a tiny fraction of what they were at the start of the outbreak. The state has lifted most of the infection-control measures — like mask and social distancing requirements — and businesses can once again welcome customers indoors and out.

Republicans in the Legislature — where all seats are up for reelection this fall — insist that the true COVID-19 emergency is now long over. They complained bitterly about the additional power Murphy — a first-term Democrat who is also seeking reelection in November — has obtained under the public-health emergency executive order, which began in March 2020 and will now be phased out over the months to come, thanks to a bill approved Thursday along party lines.

“We still have issues to deal with, but the public health emergency expired a long time ago,” Assemblyman Jay Webber (R-Morris) said during heated testimony Thursday on the bill addressing Murphy’s pandemic powers.

Protests in Trenton

Protestors raged against Murphy’s coronavirus-related restrictions outside the State House in Trenton on Thursday, but polling data shows the public is largely comfortable with the way he has responded to the pandemic, including with recent steps to reopen New Jersey. But not everyone agrees the COVID-19 crisis is in fact over.

In a survey of 1,000 residents conducted in late May by Rutgers University’s Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling, half the respondents said the state is moving at the right pace in reopening, while nearly one-third said the process is too slow. Just over a third of those contacted said the pandemic is mostly over in New Jersey, another third said halfway over, one quarter said far from over, with the remainder believing COVID-19 is behind us.

A survey conducted several weeks earlier by Monmouth University Polling Institute said more than half of the respondents were comfortable with the state’s efforts to control the virus. Nearly three-quarters of those contacted also supported recent changes to expand limits for gatherings outside, and six in 10 approved of Murphy’s plan to allow larger groups inside.

“A lot has happened in the last four weeks alone,” said Patrick Murray, director of the polling institute, noting the additional steps the state has taken to reopen. But given the support for Murphy administration policies in previous polls, he said, “I think the public is reacting positively to the shift” toward less pandemic-related regulation.

READ: NJ might miss vaccination benchmark, so Murphy adds incentives

WATCH: Bribes for COVID-19 shots? Gov. Murphy says, ‘Everything’s on the table’

Murphy’s news conferences remain for now

One element of the pandemic response Murphy plans to keep in place, at least for now, are his regular COVID-19 news conferences, during which he holds court before the media and an online audience that once included thousands, alongside Department of Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli, State Police Superintendent Patrick Callahan and other officials. Murphy has used the 200 briefings held to date to update the public on new data and policy changes and to eulogize New Jerseyans who have lost their lives to the virus.

“One of the things that I think is true in any public health crisis” — whether a disease or a natural disaster or something else — “is that communication is really the key,” said epidemiologist Stephanie Silvera, a public health professor at Montclair State University. While Murphy’s events have long provided important public information, she said, “the usefulness of the briefings starts to peter out a little bit. We don’t need to know the numbers to know whether we are going to the grocery store anymore.”

“We have turned a corner in that way,” Silvera added. “It’s not the must-see TV it once was.”

State data shows New Jersey reported an average of 6,000 new COVID-19 cases daily in early January, at the height of the pandemic’s second wave, and hospitals were packed with nearly 4,000 patients. Since March 2020, more than 1 million residents have been diagnosed with the disease, including at least 26,000 who died as a result.

New Jersey launched its COVID-19 vaccination program in mid-December and demand quickly surged, outpacing supply for much of the winter. But as infrastructure grew and logistics improved, the state administered a growing number of shots daily, peaking at more than 120,000 injections in early April.

While interest in the COVID-19 vaccines has slackened significantly since then, the state data indicates more than 4.1 million New Jerseyans have now been fully immunized. Murphy set a goal of vaccinating 4.7 million eligible residents by July, a level he has recently said will be hard to reach but is attainable.

“We are seeing the benefits of vaccination with more activities opening up in our state and less virus circulating in our communities,” Persichilli said at the briefing Wednesday. “Now is the time. If you haven’t done so, let’s get vaccinated.”

Murphy: ‘We are going local’ with vaccines

That message may seem at odds with the decision Murphy announced Wednesday to phase out the six state-overseen vaccination mega-sites, which were built to provide as many as 2,500 shots a day. But health policy experts say people are more comfortable getting immunized by their doctor or local pharmacist, so the state has shifted its focus to community-based vaccination programs.

Murphy thanked the health systems and government partners who ran the mega-sites, which he called “the backbone” of the state’s initial vaccination program. “This in no way means that our job is done, or that we’ve accomplished our overall vaccination goals,” he said, but the attention will move to local and community-based sites.

“This (local) phase is moving forward at full speed,” Murphy said. “We’ve been saying this for the past month. We’re going on the offense. We have to bring the vaccine to people, and we are going local.”

Public surveys show that some people remain hesitant about getting the COVID-19 vaccine, but others are more strident in their opposition to inoculations in general. Polling indicates that divide is defined in large part by politics, with Republicans less likely to be vaccinated then Independents or Democrats.

The influence of politics

“There’s a difference between being hesitant and being unwilling” to get vaccinated, Monmouth University’s Murray said. “The big break between those who absolutely won’t get the vaccine and those who will is party identity,” he added, and Republicans “have framed this through personal freedom.”

The coronavirus infection risk for those who are unvaccinated remains high — as much as 69% higher than for the public at large, according to a Washington Post analysis — but with more and more people immunized, there are fewer opportunities for COVID-19 to spread. That doesn’t mean it will go away, experts note, especially as more infectious and deadly variants emerge.

“It’s highly unlikely that COVID will be eradicated,” said Silvera, the Montclair State University epidemiologist. More likely is we get the virus under control, she said, so we experience only localized outbreaks, like with measles. “The key is having enough people vaccinated so that these episodes or outbreaks stay hyper-local and don’t affect the hospitals and schools and broader swaths of the population,” she said.

READ: As more get vaccinated, risks grow for those who don’t

WATCH: Neighboring communities have highest and lowest COVID-19 vaccination rates in Camden County

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