COVID-19 is spreading faster in South Jersey, researcher says

Kim McCline hasn’t felt well but couldn’t get tested for COVID-19 until Atlantic County opened up its test site for the public in Mays Landing on Tuesday. One hundred and fifty residents made appointments to line up for nose swabs, including McCline. She’s been worried.

“I have been sick now for about three weeks now and it just won’t go away,” she said. “And I want to stay out of the hospital. I don’t want to be in there.”

“My elderly mother, as well, lives with us. She’s 85 so we want to make sure, we want to see what it is so we know how to deal with it,” said her sister, Pam.

Atlantic County’s relatively late getting its test program up and running compared to other counties. New Jersey’s two FEMA-supplied coronavirus test facilities in Paramus and Holmdel opened in mid-March — almost a month ago. And as New Jersey’s COVID-19 state map shows, the virus struck first and hardest in the densely-populated north. But now it’s South Jersey’s turn to trend upward.

“You’re increasing by a third, or you’re increasing by 10 to 15% from day to day,” said Patricia Diamond, Atlantic County’s public health officer.

“The data suggests that the disease is spreading in South Jersey. And right now it’s spreading faster in South Jersey than it was in North Jersey,” Sarah Allred, a professor at Rutgers-Camden’s Rand Institute for Public Affairs, said.

Allred compiled a new map showing the doubling time for COVID-19 cases is now higher in South Jersey. It can take only six days to double the number of cases in Atlantic or Camden Counties compared to 16 days in Bergen, for example. So expect to see a southern surge in the need for beds, staffing and especially ventilators, Allred says.

“I think with the way the state’s being careful about its resources, and the fact we’re seeing things flatten now in North Jersey, so long as we can move resources around the state we should be able to have what we need in South Jersey,” Allred said.

New Jersey’s third pop-up field hospital at Atlantic City’s Convention Center will be ready to open next week and will provide 250 more beds. Gov. Phil Murphy has said the state’s pursuing another 950 ventilators. Some South Jersey politicians hope social distancing flattens the curve here.

“We thought this week would be a lot more positive cases and a lot more intense medical care needed, but so far we’ve been pretty lucky in that the demand for medical care has not increased anywhere near as drastically as we thought it might this week. We’re hoping that remains the case for the next couple weeks. Of course, there are no guarantees,” said Camden County Freeholder Lou Cappelli Jr.

But Allred says the number of hospitalizations can lag behind test results, so robust test programs gives officials a better idea of where to focus efforts and supplies. Camden County’s opening a second test site Wednesday, and Atlantic County will swab another 150 people in Mays Landing on Thursday. But the county could only get 600 test kits and labs are backed up.

“There were some issues with acquiring test kits and making sure that a lab could deliver results in a timely fashion,” Diamond said.

Health experts say the COVID-19 surge is coming in South Jersey. How well the region handles it depends on consistent social distancing and smart allocation of resources.

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