Amid growing crisis elsewhere, NJ officials discuss COVID-19 preparations

With the number of confirmed cases and deaths growing across the country, Gov. Murphy sought Monday to calm residents rattled about coronavirus and offer assurances that officials were taking necessary steps to address the expected arrival of the flu-like illness in the Garden State.

Murphy, who gathered with state health officials and others at an emergency operations center outside Trenton, said tests conducted to date on eight people in New Jersey for COVID-19, all have been negative. Testing is planned for a ninth person, who is currently self-quarantined at home.

“The overall risk is right now is low, and that’s a fact,” Murphy said. “I don’t want anyone to mistake those statements with any amount of casualness. We’re taking this aggressively, seriously, doing everything we can, proactively, to get out ahead of anything that might come our way.”

Nationwide, the number of confirmed cases has continued to grow, and is now approaching 100, including one confirmed case in New York City, a 39-year-old health care worker who had recently been in Iran, one of the countries beyond China that has seen the most cases.

Six deaths have been reported in the United States, all in Washington state in the region near Seattle. Four of the dead were residents of a nursing home, officials there reported. Before Monday, only two fatalities had been reported.

Globally, the World Health Organization reported a continuing rise in the number of cases beyond China, the original epicenter of the outbreak, with more than 8,700 confirmed cases in 61 other countries and more than 125 deaths.

“The epidemics in the Republic of Korea, Italy, Iran and Japan are our greatest concern,” said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO’s executive director during Monday morning news briefing.

But the WHO also says that the number of new cases reported in China each day continues to decline, with only eight reported beyond Hubei province, in the nation’s central region where the outbreak was first seen.

More than 80,000 cases and nearly 3,000 deaths have been confirmed in China.

In New Jersey, Murphy and the other officials sought to prepare residents for the likelihood that the state would be directly affected, despite the lack of any confirmed cases in the state to date.

“Even though there are no cases and number of detections remain small, as we do this additional testing, it does remain likely we will identify cases in the near future,” said Lisa McHugh, program coordinator for Infectious Disease Epidemiology at the state Department of Health.

Health Commission Judith Persichelli said the person still to be tested does not have a fever. “We expect specimens to be delivered sometime later today and that person will be tested,” she said.

In New York, at a Monday news conference after state officials had announced the state’s first confirmed case, who is self-quarantined in her Manhattan apartment, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said he wants to conduct 1,000 tests a day.

“Our challenge now is to test as many people as you can,” he said. “You’re not going to eliminate the spread, but you can limit the spread, and testing is very important and that’s why the CDC, the federal government’s allowing us to test is a very big deal.”

The New Jersey Department of Health has also received test kits, which provide an eight-hour turnaround for results. Officials said they will follow guidelines established by the federal Centers for Disease Control when deciding who to test, including those who recently were in Iran and anyone with unexplained pneumonia symptoms.

Officials said the state has 700 hospital isolation rooms ready, if needed.

And the state Department of Education is advising school districts to prepare for off-campus instruction of students.

“Districts should have protocols in place for provision of home instruction in a home or out-of-school setting, either directly, through online services, or through contract with another district for students with temporary or chronic health conditions,” said NJ Department of Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet.

He urged anyone with questions to reach out to county Offices of Education for more information.

Murphy also said he would be making a series of phone calls Tuesday to education officials, including school superintendents and leaders of colleges and universities, leaders of the state business community and officials at the local and county level to make sure everyone is “working from the same page.”

In addition, health officials repeated their plea for residents to wash their hands, cover their coughs with their sleeves and avoid touching their faces. Also, they have said that anyone exhibiting signs of respiratory disease to work from home.

Murphy also responded to reports of people stocking up on supplies against a possible quarantine.

“There’s been a run on masks — I know in New York City, even more so than in New Jersey,” he said. “Everyone’s got to use common sense here. When we say there’s a low risk, we mean  it.”

Murphy said he spoke with Vice President Mike Pence Monday and said he’s hoping to see more federal financial support from the federal government.

During a news conference convened by Pence on Monday evening, officials announced that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services was becoming part of a coronavirus task force he’s empaneled. The federal agency has oversight over the nation’s elderly care system, including nursing homes.

President Donald Trump last week handed responsibility for the government’s response to the crisis to Pence.