State eases pandemic protocols, keeps eye on ‘stealth’ variant

LILO H. STAINTON, HEALTH CARE WRITER | FEBRUARY 24, 2022

NJ Spotlight News

A technician prepares COVID-19 coronavirus patient samples for testing at a laboratory.

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New Jersey is winding down its pandemic response as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations continue to decline, but health officials will continue to closely monitor a newer subvariant that could spread faster than the omicron strain that swept across the nation in December and January.

BA.2 — the so-called stealth variant — has been identified in about 1% of the COVID-19 cases examined over the past month, state officials said Wednesday. Federal models indicate it could account for close to 6% of diagnoses in the New York-New Jersey region. BA.2 is already predominant in some Asian countries and in Denmark, where cases and deaths have spiked, prompting concern that the variant could cause similar harm elsewhere as governments dial back on pandemic protections.

Gov. Phil Murphy said Wednesday the state will be ready if BA.2 or other variants do surge, thanks in part to coordination with the federal government. Murphy said he informed White House officials about what New Jersey would need should that happen and felt confident the response could be ramped up quickly. The list includes “instant access — in scale — to testing, vaccines, PPE (personal protective gear for health care workers), hospital capacity, antivirals, monoclonal antibodies. Whatever it is, we’ve got a wall of resources built at both the federal and state level that we will have at our disposal,” Murphy said Wednesday.

Minor impact thus far

While it is too soon to know exactly what the BA.2 variant could mean for state residents, Dr. Ed Lifshitz, director of New Jersey’s Communicable Disease Service, explained the modified strain hasn’t had a major impact to date. “There is some evidence out there that it may be a little more transmissible than the standard omicron variant, but the short answer is, we don’t know yet and certainly we’re not seeing any big increase in cases in the United States or New Jersey from it,” he said Wednesday.

“I don’t see any evidence yet that BA.2 is sweeping through, or likely to sweep through” the state, Lifshitz added, noting that 99% of the cases sequenced — a small percentage of all COVID-19 tests — are still found to be the original omicron. “Although that’s why we do the surveillance, to make sure we know what’s going to happen,” he added.

Weekly reports created by Lifshitz’s team using data from doctors and hospitals about diagnoses of COVID-19-like illnesses show all six state regions are now experiencing “moderate” levels of disease, down from “high” and “very high” levels at the start of the year. Daily case numbers have dropped nearly 97% since their high point early this year and hospitalizations declined 20% since last week alone, according to state data. These days roughly one in 20 people tested statewide is diagnosed with COVID-19, down from four in 10 during the recent surge, officials said.

Murphy said New Jersey will stick with its plan to lift the controversial mask mandate for schools and child care centers starting next week, a process bolstered by guidance released Wednesday by the state health department. “A lot of these decisions will quite rightly be made at the district level, with the input of local health authorities and local health realities,” he said.

COVID-19 anniversary

Murphy also announced he would hold his final pre-scheduled pandemic media briefing March 4, the anniversary of New Jersey’s first COVID-19 diagnosis in 2020, and that weekly media events were no longer necessary given the declining impact of the virus. Murphy pledged to soon review the mask mandate for state workers and seek to open additional government offices that have been operating remotely since the start of the pandemic.

“We want to get the schools up and running” without a mask mandate before lifting the requirement elsewhere, Murphy said, although face coverings will still be required in health care facilities, public transit and other settings based on federal orders. “We’ve got this thing on the run, there’s just no question about it,” he said.

The declining COVID-19 metrics will not impact New Jersey’s vaccination requirements for workers in health care, corrections and other high-risk settings, Murphy noted, although he said the state orders may need to be modified to align with new federal guidance. Health care workers must be fully vaccinated and boosted by Monday and some nursing home operators are concerned the mandate will exacerbate the current staffing shortages.

Murphy cited these declining overall trends Wednesday in declaring an end to the in-person media briefings, events he and his team have hosted more than 250 times since March 2020. State officials will continue to update reporters and the public online, he said, and would restart the gatherings in Trenton only if there is a “meaningful, material deterioration in the data.”

A ‘new’ new normal

While the briefings have served an important purpose, Murphy said it was time to move “beyond the pandemic” and a “new normal” phase. “The more folks that get vaccinated and boosted, the back to normal we all want will come sooner and more fulsome,” he added.

Murphy noted that New Jersey’s COVID-19 vaccination rate is among the nation’s highest but pledged to keep pushing those who haven’t been immunized to get their shots. Officials are particularly concerned about lagging uptake among younger children and the fact that roughly half of eligible New Jerseyans have not received the booster, a critical protection against omicron.

To help fill this gap, the state launched Boost NJ2 Week on Wednesday, with several hundred vaccination sites holding special events to encourage participation. “I want to urge all those who are eligible to get vaccinated or receive a booster dose to ensure the greatest protection against COVID-19,” state Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli said.

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published this page in News and Politics 2022-02-24 03:05:33 -0800