Murphy front and center at latest COVID-19 update

For the first time since he underwent successful kidney surgery, Gov. Phil Murphy presided over the state’s daily briefing on COVID-19, where he reported that the number of presumptive positive cases in New Jersey jumped to 50 from 29 the day before.

And just as the update at the state’s emergency operations center in Ewing was wrapping up, President Donald Trump declared a national state of emergency, a move that frees up $50 billion for states to aid in the fight against the spread of the novel virus, which has infected more than 1,800 across the nation and killed 41. The announcement buoyed investors who reversed nearly all of Thursday’s historic losses on the nation’s stock exchanges.

Both leaders offered words of encouragement to populations left reeling by a dizzying week that has seen seismic shifts in daily life, with many sheltering in place and working from home, shoppers emptying shelves and cultural and sports institutions suspending their schedules.

“This will pass, this will pass through, and we will be even stronger for it,” Trump said. “We’ve learning a lot.”

Murphy hit on a similar theme, calling on his entire state to pull together in a time of crisis.

“We will get through this,” Murphy said. “This is no question in my mind we’ll get through this. We won’t be unscathed, it won’t be without learning some tough lessons. But if we each do our part, all 9 million of us, including yours truly, we will flatten that curve. We’ll put one foot in front of the other and we will emerge from this as one New Jersey family, stronger than ever.”

State Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli provided a breakdown of the 21 new cases by county, saying they occurred in Monmouth, Essex, Ocean, Mercer, Burlington, Morris, Bergen, Hudson, Passaic and Middlesex. Five other cases remain under review, she said.

Bergen County’s two addition cases bring its total to 15, the most in the state.

Murphy, after thanking Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver and other officials for their work during his recovery, discussed ramped-up efforts to control the spread of the coronavirus, focusing in large measure on public schools and signaling that an order to shut down in-school instruction in all of the more than 600 school districts in New Jersey was coming within a matter of days.

Ten days ago, Murphy had a tumor removed from a kidney.

Roughly half of the state’s public school systems have already announced plans to close next week, and have been making provisions to switch to remote learning. All public schools in Bergen will be closed, as well as their counterparts in Jersey City and Hoboken.

“For some districts that time is now,” Murphy said. “For others, we are working around the clock to ensure that when their time comes — and it is a when and not an if — they will be prepared to provide all critical services for their communities.”

Several states, including Maryland, New Mexico, Michigan, Ohio and Oregon have closed schools statewide.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has declined to close New York City schools, except on a case-by-case basis, while otherwise pursuing a mandatory containment and mitigation program that includes an outright ban on events of 500 people or more, a step that has turned out the lights at Broadway theaters.

The most outspoken federal expert on the coronavirus pandemic supports taking aggressive steps to stop spread of the virus, which has left 5,000 dead across the globe.

“You make a decision to do something, and someone might say, ‘well, are you overreacting?’” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “We’ve got to lose that. We’ve got to start looking at doing things now in anticipation of what might happen.”

Doctors and others have said that the current level of testing is insufficient, and researchers are working on innovations to help define the scope of this pandemic.

A new highly-sensitive coronavirus test has been developed at Hackensack Meridian Health’s Center for Discovery and Innovation, which returns reliable results in just four hours. It’s now being used by doctors at Hackensack University Medical Center, who can collect specimens on-site and get results the same day. They’re starting with 24 tests every eight hours.

“We need to make the tests local, where they’re being ordered, so physicians can get information quickly,” said David Perlin who is the chief scientific officer for the Center for Discovery and Innovation.

The center developed the test working with live virus, and officials say they can expand capacity to do 40 to 50 patients a day, but need to hire more trained staff.

Perlin cautioned that the hospital will not test just anyone who walks in.

“The test has to be used in conjunction with out health care professionals who are making judgements about individuals who are the sickest, who have clinical symptoms that would warrant testing. That has to be our priority right now in terms of triaging. We cannot just have individuals who don’t feel well showing up to be tested,” he said.

Murphy also announced that a federal shipment of masks, respirators and face shields is on the way, which is welcome news to front line responders and hospitals who have said their stocks are running low.

“We are concerned right now about the availability of personal protective equipment for their workers,” said Pershichilli. “It’s running slim. The stockpiles are dwindling. It was great to hear that we expect a shipment next week.”

Murphy also said that the state’s power and water utilities were suspending any shutoffs during the crisis. Motor Vehicle Commission deadlines are also being extended, he said.

Murphy also warned that his earlier recommendation that New Jersey residents cancel events with 250 or more people could become mandatory.

“If necessary we will mandate,” he said, sitting in front of a chart showing how social distancing works to space out cases of the disease, allowing health care facilities to keep pace.

“We must be aggressive in mitigating the potential for exposure and further spread,” he added. “And social distancing represents our best chance to so-called flatten the curve, as you can see behind me, to slow the spread and allow our public health workers the ability to stay focused and ahead of the curve as well.”

The state has established a new dashboard for residents to track the status of the COVID-19 outbreak in New Jersey. The state poison control hotline is also fielding calls on the coronavirus at 1-800-222-1222.