The impact of COVID-19 on New Jersey might be waning slightly, as new daily diagnoses and hospitalizations are down compared to last week, but that hasn’t changed state officials’ drive to connect more than 1 million residents with vaccine booster shots.
There are roughly 100 fewer people hospitalized with COVID-19 than at this time last week, Gov. Phil Murphy said Monday during his regular pandemic media briefing, and the number of intensive care patients has declined by 13%. Hospitalizations are a key measure of the pandemic’s strain on the health care system. While patient levels are nowhere near those experienced early in the outbreak — when roughly five times as many people were hospitalized — the number of COVID-19 patients admitted had been rising since July due in part to the dominance of the highly transmissible delta variant of the coronavirus.
‘The RT is at long last, a positive sign, though I think we’ll all feel better once it is below one — and stays there.’
Murphy on Monday announced 1,159 new COVID-19 cases, a slight increase from the Sunday count, but below the numbers recorded in previous weeks, when daily diagnoses often peaked above 2,000. The transmission rate, or RT — a measure of the viral spread — also continued its general downward trend to reach 1.01, he said. “That is, at long last, a positive sign, though I think we’ll all feel better once it is below one — and stays there,” Murphy said of the RT level that indicates a slowing spread.
Murphy and state Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli continued to urge New Jerseyans to get vaccinated against COVID-19, something more than 5.8 million residents have already done. As many as 1.2 million of these people are also eligible for booster shots, they said, which became an option Friday evening when federal officials approved a third Pfizer dose for those who are at greater risk for infection because of their age, health status, job or housing.
But the delta variant has led to a rising number of breakthrough cases, or infections among those who are fully vaccinated. Murphy shared state data from mid-January through mid-September that showed 0.5% of immunized residents had been diagnosed with COVID-19, 0.01% had been hospitalized as a result and just 0.002% — or 126 individuals – had died of the virus, despite being inoculated.
“We’ve seen an increase in positive tests among the fully vaccinated as the delta variant has marched across our state,” Murphy said, “but they remain a distinct minority of cases and there is nothing in the data that suggests a failing among the vaccines.”
Unvaccinated more likely to be hospitalized
A data analysis by the New Jersey Hospital Association found that unvaccinated individuals here were roughly six times more likely to be hospitalized due to COVID-19, and Murphy said 96% of those admitted between mid-January and mid-September were not immunized against the virus. Overall, since March 2020, nearly 1.2 million residents have been diagnosed with the disease, close to 92,000 have been hospitalized and almost 28,000 have died.
Given the protection provided by the vaccines, state officials are pushing to ensure that eligible residents get a third shot. Booster shots were approved by federal officials this summer for a limited group of individuals with severe immune deficiencies. Late Friday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention moved to enable millions of other at-risk Americans to access boosters.
The Gloucester County vaccination mega-site has reopened to help meet demand for these third Pfizer doses and will be scheduling appointments for shots later this week, Persichilli said Monday. And the state Department of Health has provided each county with an estimate of the likely number of residents who will qualify, she said. The state is urging county leaders to ensure they have the capacity to immunize this group and it will add other sites, if needed. Persichilli urged eligible New Jerseyans to contact their doctor, drugstore or public health office to see if they can get the shot closer to home. (She also encouraged those who haven’t had any shots to start the process at one of the roughly 1,600 vaccination sites statewide.)
‘We believe we’ll be able to manage the demand. But we expect there will be a supply-demand imbalance for some time.’
Murphy has repeatedly warned that there could be a vaccine shortage as the booster rollout begins, but he stressed Monday that it would not reach the same crisis level that plagued New Jersey earlier this year, when residents were scrambling for weeks to obtain shots. “We believe we’ll be able to manage the demand,” he said. “But we have said for some time we expect there will be a supply-demand imbalance for some time.”
The CDC’s decision Friday indicates that Americans age 65 and older, residents of long-term care, and those between 50 to 64 who have certain underlying conditions should get a third Pfizer dose after six months. Individuals who are age 18 to 49 with health concerns and those who work or live in higher-risk settings may also get a booster under the guidance.
Persichilli said Monday that high-risk settings include, but are not limited to, living or working in a homeless shelter, group home or prison, or working in a grocery store, public transportation, classroom or health care facility. Health conditions that increase an individual’s COVID-19 risk include the following, among others, she said: cancer, chronic kidney disease, dementia and other neurological aging disorders, chronic lung disease, diabetes, Down syndrome, heart conditions and high blood pressure, HIV/AIDS and other immune system conditions, liver disease, overweight and obesity, pregnancy, sickle cell disease, smoking history, substance use disorder, stem cell and organ transplants, stroke and cerebral vascular disease.
“This list does not include all of the potential medical conditions that could make an individual more likely to get severely ill from COVID-19,” Persichilli said. “Individuals who want to get a booster but are not sure if the definition outlined by the CDC applies should talk to their health care provider to determine if the benefits of receiving the booster outweighs the risk.”
As of Monday, Persichilli said more than 105,000 New Jerseyans have received third shots, including more than 14,000 who got booster shots over the past weekend. The total includes many residents with compromised immune systems who qualified under the guidance issued earlier this summer.