As cases climb and vaccine distribution improves, New Jersey marks 1 year of Covid-19

 03/03/2021 

Politico

New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, background, listens to New Jersey Department of Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli as World War II veteran Clarence Williams get vaccinated for Covid-19, Friday, Jan. 22, 2021, in Moorestown, N.J.

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Gov. Phil Murphy had just been wheeled out of surgery to remove a cancerous tumor from his kidney on March 4, 2020, when he received a text saying New Jersey had recorded its first case of Covid-19.

One year later, official estimates put the state’s death toll at close to 23,500, a number that's climbing by several dozen each day. Eleven months removed from its time as the epicenter of a global pandemic, New Jersey’s per-capita death rate remains the highest in the U.S.

“More than a year ago, we knew we’d have to prepare our state, and each of you, for the worst and hope for the best. None of us could have even imagined what it was that we’d be up against,” Murphy said during his regular Covid-19 briefing on Wednesday, his 170th since a Jan. 29, 2020, press conference at which state officials insisted the risk posed by the virus was “quite low."

“We were in the dark. There’s no other way to put it,” he said.

The public health picture remains grim.

Daily case counts are elevated and appear to be ticking upward (nearly 3,000 more positive PCR tests were reported on Wednesday). Slightly less than 2,000 patients confirmed or suspected of having coronavirus are being treated in the state’s hospitals and Murphy’s public health state of emergency order — which was first issued last March 9 and gives him sweeping powers over day-to-day life in the Garden State — remains in effect.

The spread of new variants — including strains that originated in the U.K., Brazil and neighboring New York state — have slowed plans to loosen economic restrictions that are among the strictest in the nation (something Murphy’s touted as a point of pride).

Even so, New Jersey is beginning to see daylight as it closes out one the most difficult years in its history.

More schools are returning to in-person instruction, something that will likely accelerate as educators are now eligible to be vaccinated. Restaurant dining rooms were given the go-ahead to expand to 35 percent capacity last month and Murphy on Wednesday signed an executive order to reopen sleepaway summer camps and lift limits on the size of wedding receptions.

“As we slowly recover, we want people to celebrate the good things,” Murphy said, noting that both wedding receptions and sleepaway camps often take months to plan.

Future steps to unwind the state’s economic lockdown, something administration officials for months said was contingent upon social distancing adherence and public health data, is now dependent upon Murphy’s oversight of the rollout of two-shot Covid-19 vaccines developed by Pfizer and Moderna as well as a recently-introduced single shot dose from New Jersey-based Johnson & Johnson.

New Jersey’s supply of doses is on the verge of taking a “quantum leap,” Murphy said Wednesday. As more residents get inoculated, assuming adherence to masking and social distancing hold, the state’s public health could soon be “in a whole different place.”

The state’s vaccination effort hasn’t been a smooth-running affair thus far. An early, frequently criticized decision to make doses available to smokers opened up the eligibility pool to roughly 2 million New Jerseyans at a time when the state was only receiving around 100,000 doses each week. The state’s online portal for scheduling an appointment has been hamstrung by technical difficulties and long queues. Many residents, particularly older ones, struggle to schedule appointments.

More than 3.7 million New Jerseyans now qualify for a Covid-19 vaccine, Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli said Wednesday, a number that spiked considerably earlier this week when the state added underlying conditions like asthma, hypertension and obesity to the list of eligible criteria.

The supply of doses likely won't climb to a point where it could match demand until April, administration officials said Wednesday. Appointments will remain hard to come by for at least a few more weeks, they said.

By the same token, almost 2.2 vaccine doses have been administered since December and close to 800,000 residents have been fully vaccinated. More than 400,000 of those doses have been injected at six state-managed ‘megasites’ operated in conjunction with local health systems — and the accompanying decline in transmission has brought down the risk for some of the most vulnerable residents.

New infections and deaths among nursing home and long-term care residents, who had received top priority along with frontline health care workers in December and January, fell by more than 90 percent since the beginning of the year, Persichilli said Wednesday.

In December, when the number of doses being administered barely cracked four digits some days, both Murphy and Persichilli said they hoped to have roughly 4.7 million New Jerseyans vaccinated by the end of May. The arrival of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine — with a huge assist in production from Merck — coupled with a spike in deliveries from Moderna and Pfizer slated to arrive in the coming weeks, means that goal increasingly seems within reach.

“We’ve said Memorial Day from day one and we’re going to continue to hang our hat, plus or minus, on Memorial Day,” Murphy said. “And it’s now quite clear that the federal government and private manufacturers of these vaccines are also on record as saying that that’s a time frame they believe in as well.”

“Keep the faith folks,“ he said. “It’s been one of hell of a year.”

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published this page in News and Politics 2021-03-04 03:07:32 -0800