New Jersey officials said they are pleased by what they consider the relatively small number of school-based COVID-19 infections reported so far this year, given previous concerns that outbreaks would spike when children returned to in-person learning last month.
But they also want to get a clearer picture of who and where COVID-19 cases are being diagnosed in classrooms across the state. And they are eager to learn exactly how many people in each school are vaccinated against the coronavirus, something reporters have asked administration officials to clarify.
Gov. Phil Murphy announced Wednesday that the state Department of Health would order all schools to provide weekly reports with data on infections among staff and students and on immunization rates among those eligible, starting later this month. COVID-19 vaccines have been approved for people age 12 and older. Murphy ordered all school employees be vaccinated by Oct. 18, or be tested at least once a week, and he has mandated that everyone, including children of all ages, wear masks in school buildings.
“It’s unavoidable that as we live more of our lives indoors this (virus) will kick up again,” Murphy said at Wednesday’s pandemic briefing.
‘Open for business,’ spikes and all
Earlier this week he declared New Jersey would be “open for business” during the holidays, but on Wednesday Murphy predicted the state would experience several spikes in new COVID-19 cases and hospitalization numbers in the months to come, despite a larger downward trend in pandemic metrics overall.
The number of school-based outbreaks has doubled since last week to 69, Murphy noted. But he said he was satisfied with the fact that fewer than 400 students and staff had been diagnosed with COVID-19 since schools reopened in September. There are some 1.3 million children in New Jersey’s public schools and 130,000 teachers, plus administrators and support staff.
The current school-outbreak numbers are “well within the range of any acceptable outcome at the moment in schools,” Murphy said. “We pray for everyone who is sick — more than zero is too much — but that’s a reasonable place at this point.”
Dr. Ed Lifshitz, who heads the state’s communicable disease service, agreed “the school numbers are looking good” at this point and there have been few outbreaks on college campuses. “We are really too early to give any definitive trends now, because the school year has just begun,” he said, “but overall, it’s relatively reassuring.”
COVID-19 outside the classroom
That said, the school outbreak figures do not include children who contract COVID-19 from classmates, teammates or adults during activities that take place outside the classroom. Children who are infected but asymptomatic also won’t be counted, Murphy noted.
The regional school system in Toms River, which posts pandemic data on its website, currently has more than 300 active infections among students and staff — and nearly 600 are quarantined. But because the infections have not been tied to the schools themselves, these individuals are not included in the school count on the state’s dashboard, which indicates Ocean County has one school-based outbreak with five cases.
Overall, the pandemic’s impact has been receding slightly in New Jersey, with state data showing a slow overall decline since mid-September in the number of new COVID-19 cases, despite daily peaks and valleys. Hospitalization numbers have also see-sawed recently, but state health officials said they had declined 16% overall in the past two weeks.
But state Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli also warned that upticks in this data are expected in the weeks and months to come, but not to levels that would strain public health resources. The DOH runs computer-based predictive models every two weeks, she said, which analyze data related to cases, hospitalization, vaccine use, public health policies and other metrics.
“Right now we expect an uptick (in these measures), and we expect it to occur after Thanksgiving, between Thanksgiving and Christmas,” Persichilli said. “But we do expect it to be within a range that the capacity can be handled very well by our hospitals.”
DOH officials receive daily updates on COVID-19 diagnoses from a network of labs throughout the state and collect hospital-related data every 24 hours with help from the New Jersey Hospital Association. Assessing the situation in schools appears be more challenging.
Streamlining COVID-19 updates
While some schools have begun reporting COVID-19 cases directly to the DOH, most of the classroom-related data flows to state officials from local health officials; schools must alert them when they detect an infection among students or staff. Under the new directive, Persichilli said schools will need to submit weekly updates with COVID-19 test results straight to the department’s Communicable Disease Reporting Surveillance System, starting Oct. 26.
Persichilli said these reports must include any testing data collected, whether the screening is done by the school itself, an outside vendor or part of information shared by a parent or staff member. School officials will also need to provide weekly updates on the vaccination levels among staff and eligible students, she said. These weekly filings do not replace schools’ responsibility to report cases to local health officials, she noted.
“The (health) department will collect the information, analyze it for trends and share it in the aggregate on our (public data) dashboard,” Persichilli said at Wednesday’s briefing. “Layered strategies of testing, vaccination for those eligible, masking, physical distancing, handwashing and staying home when sick are the best tools for keeping our schools and communities safe for in-person activities.”