How COVID-19 response is changing daily life

As the number of COVID-19 infections continues its stubborn ascent, government officials and other leaders in New Jersey and beyond announced steps aimed at controlling the spread of the virus that will force a seismic shift in both the cultural landscape of the region and day-to-day life of residents.

In New Jersey, state officials announced six new presumptive positive cases of coronavirus, but no additional deaths.

As the effort in New Jersey and elsewhere broadens from a focus on containment to mitigation by social distancing. Gov. Phil Murphy said he was recommending the cancellation of all events with more than 250 people, including parades, concerts and sporting events.

Across the river, those in charge of much of the cultural life that defines New York City announced plans Wednesday to shut down, from the Metropolitan Opera and the Philharmonic to Broadway, in the wake of an order from Gov. Andrew Cuomo banning all gatherings of more than 500 people.

Also Wednesday, Major League Baseball canceled the rest of its spring training schedule, on the heels of announcements by the NBA, the NHL and Major League Soccer that they were suspending all competition.

State officials say Murphy’s restrictions aren’t mandatory, but instead depend on people being responsible.

“We are in a public health emergency and a state of emergency,” Murphy said Thursday in a video put out on Twitter. “There’s still no need to panic, but we’ve got to be smart about getting out ahead of this.”

State Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli also said officials were counting on individuals to be responsible in terms of private events, like weddings.

“We are allowing a little bit of leverage for that — a little bit of leverage for religious events — but we’re really asking people to make their own decisions,” she said.

The running tally of presumptive positive cases in New Jersey now stands at 29, with the six announced Wednesday. They include two from Bergen, including a 16-year-old girl from Englewood who’s hospitalized, and one each from Morris, Essex, Monmouth and Somerset Counties. One death has been reported, a 69-year-old from Little Ferry who had emphysema and other underlying complications.

Amid the continuing rise in the number of cases, people continued to stock up against the possibility of being quarantined or otherwise isolated.

Shopping carts were lined up at a BJ’s Wholesale Club in Watchung. Stores are rationing staples like toilet paper.

Across the state, playgrounds emptied as 207 school districts announced closings, most for deep cleaning and staff planning for the potential necessity of remote learning on an extended basis, according to Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet.

Officials were also considering such changes as changing the way meals are served in the state’s schools.

“We will be making recommendations tomorrow to our school districts to modify their schedules and to actually have lunch within the classrooms,” he said.

In East Brunswick, schools were shut down after a 58-year-old township woman was hospitalized with the virus. Parents say they believe officials are being responsible, and that families are coping.

“They are pretty smart kids, they have been listening to the news,” said Pervin Pardiwala. “The teachers are also talking to them, and the schools are briefing them right from the beginning.”

Officials in Hoboken announced Thursday evening that they were closing schools for two weeks starting Monday.

The federal Centers for Disease Control has come under some criticism from those who say it should expand testing protocols to include thousands more that currently being conducted.

Hackensack Meridian Health said it isn’t waiting for the CDC, and is instead creating its own rapid response test. Officials say it cuts the wait time for results from days to hours.

State health officials say the Public Health and Environmental Laboratories where coronavirus tests are being conducted have the capacity to test 40 to 60 people a day. Holy Name Medical Center in Teaneck is no longer depending on the state Department of Health for testing.

“I think the Department of Health is inundated, and the commercial lab has been able to ramp up a little bit so we’re using a commercial lab,” said Adam Jarrett, Chief Medical Officer of Holy Name Medical Center. “Unfortunately there’s still a delay – it’s at least three days, and in some cases a bit longer.”

He described the testing procedure.

“We swab patients twice – once in the nose, and it’s not the most pleasant test in the world. The swab goes up pretty high in their nose. And then we also swab their throat,” said Jarrett. “If patients are producing sputum, then we take a sputum sample as well.”

Across the state, meanwhile, health care providers are bracing for the predicted surge in patients. Hospitals across New Jersey have about 700 isolation rooms ready to treat patients, but Jarrett worries they will run out of proper protective personal equipment.

Meanwhile, as social distancing becomes the new normal, the list grows of big-time events that have either been canceled or altered. The NCAA has canceled its March Madness basketball tournament basketball tournament will be played in empty arenas, and New York City has postponed the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, for the first time in its history.

At the same time, cruise operators Viking and Carnival Princess have announced they’re suspending trips until April and May.

Health experts say it’s not an overreaction – COVID-19 can be dangerous.

“Coronavirus enters through your mucous membranes — that means your nose, your mouth, and possibly your eyes as well,” said Dr. Kristin Fless, vice chair of the Department of Medicine at Saint Barnabas Medical Center.

It’s particularly dangerous for people over 60, who have health issues like diabetes, hypertension or cardiac disease. The virus is most deadly when it attacks the lungs.

“Usually it’s because of a severe pneumonia, where you have trouble oxygenating the lungs. And once you have trouble oxygenating your blood because of a pneumonia, then the other organs tend to suffer,” she said.

Experts and officials say many people may not realize they’re infected because they may just feel like have a cold. But they could still spread the virus. That’s why health officials urge anyone who feels sick to remain at home.

The state has established a new dashboard for residents to track the status of the COVID-19 outbreak in New Jersey.