New Jersey has now surpassed the vaccination goal Gov. Phil Murphy set late last year, with more than 4.9 million residents fully immunized against the COVID-19 virus. But state officials tempered that news Wednesday with warnings about the growing spread of the highly infectious delta variant of the virus.
State health commissioner Judy Persichilli used the press briefing Wednesday to urge New Jerseyans to “be smart, be vigilant (and) be careful,” about potential infection while celebrating the July Fourth holiday. Events should be held outdoors if possible, she said, and unvaccinated individuals should wear masks and maintain a 6-foot distance from others.
“It is important that we continue to take precautions so we can see case numbers go further down in our state and we can resume so many of the activities that we enjoy during the summer season,” Persichilli said, before reminding residents to wear sunscreen and insect repellent and keep children away from unsupervised pools and grills.
More than 1 million New Jerseyans have been diagnosed with COVID-19 since March 2020, according to state figures, including some 26,400 who have died as a result. New cases have dropped dramatically since their peak earlier this year of more than 6,400 daily diagnoses, and hospitalizations are just a sliver of what they were at their highest in the spring of 2020, when more than 7,000 people were in acute care with the virus. On Wednesday, Murphy reported 247 COVID-19-related hospitalizations and 328 new cases.
But medical providers and health officials in New Jersey and nationwide are concerned about the rise of the delta variant, a highly infectious strain that is one of dozens of mutations to take hold in the U.S. in recent months.
Experts say delta now accounts for one in four U.S. cases. Scientific American reports that it spreads up to 60% faster than the now well-established alpha, or U.K. variant — which itself is 50% more transmissible than the original COVID-19 virus.
In New Jersey, delta was found in nearly 16% of the cases over the past four weeks, state data shows.
That percentage of delta cases is likely to rise, experts warn, especially among children, who are less likely to be vaccinated than adults. Some data suggests it could lead to more hospitalizations than other strains, but the vaccines are believed to be highly effective against delta.
NJ officials continue to monitor
Murphy said Wednesday that state officials continue to monitor the metrics — like new infections, hospitalizations and transmission rates for all cases, not just the variant — as they have for 16 months to determine if additional precautions are needed. While a growing number of public health officials nationwide are calling for a return to face coverings, Murphy said he did not see the need to reintroduce a mask mandate or other restrictions right now.
“I hope we don’t have to go back. We would not have taken the steps we’ve taken with any expectation that we had to go backward,” Murphy said. “We’re the only state in America that has not lurched, that hasn’t taken a step, then pulled back from it. And I hope we keep it that way. But if we have to [reintroduce precautions], we will.”
At the start of New Jersey’s COVID-19 immunization program in mid-December, Murphy set a goal of reaching 70% of eligible adults — or 4.7 million — by July. He later clarified that the target number was focused on those over age 18, as the initial vaccine was only approved for those age 16 and older.
But the 4.9 million-mark Murphy celebrated Wednesday includes both adults and children age 12 and up, who were cleared for the vaccine starting in May. It is not clear from data posted on the state’s COVID-19 dashboard what percentage of any age group — or racial group — has been vaccinated.
The state Department of Health shared data on vaccine coverage by age group late Wednesday, but the figures are for those who have received at least one shot, as opposed to the fully-immunized metric Murphy highlighted. According to DOH, 83% of those over age 80 have had one or more dose, along with nearly 93% of those ages 65-79, 78% of individuals in the 50-64 age group, more than 66% of New Jerseyans ages 30-49, and 56% of those ages 18-29. Nearly half of 16- and 17-year-olds have had at least one shot and almost one-third of 12- to 15-year-olds.
Of the vaccines in use, one — made by Johnson & Johnson — requires a single dose while the other two, made by Pfizer and Moderna, involve two doses.