The truth about Murphy’s reopening plan | Editorial

Posted May 10, 2020

Spring is here, and Gov. Phil Murphy’s stir-crazy constituents are clamoring for a return to normalcy.

As he’s begun carefully loosening some of his lockdown restrictions, starting with the parks and golf courses, everyone is wondering: What’s next? In some respects, we’re doing well.

Phase 1 is successful social distancing, and it’s clearly helping to contain the virus, with new hospitalizations trending downward in our state.

Phase 2 is about reopening, which can only take place after we know we are prepared to contain a second wave of infections that experts warn is almost inevitable. That means New Jersey must dramatically expand its testing capacity, and this score, Murphy is falling short.

His target of doubling to tripling the 7,000 to 9,000 daily tests we’ve been doing over the past few weeks is not nearly enough, experts say. He says he may go up to 25,000 tests a day, which experts say still falls well short of what we need.

In fact, New Jersey is far behind New York, and there are troubling signs that we are the worst in the nation when it comes to the gap between the testing we’re doing, and what we actually need to safely reopen.

Murphy’s projection of how many more tests we need is less than Harvard’s, and less than Congressman Andy Kim’s, a member of the House panel overseeing the coronavirus response. It’s a major point of concern. If we can’t get this right, we can’t safely reopen, and people should be very nervous.

New Jersey has one of the highest per capita infection rates in America. Over the past week, 32.8 percent of tests have come back positive in our state, according to Harvard’s Global Health Institute.

In New York, the positivity rate is much lower, 13.8 percent, which tells you they are testing a wider sample. The target rate recommended by the World Health Organization is 10 percent.

We are still testing the sick, not the asymptomatic spreaders. Our state would have to do more than 10 times as many tests to reach the WHO benchmark, Harvard estimates – about 98,000 tests a day by May 15th.

Other experts advise at least four times as many tests as we’re currently doing, Rep. Kim reports. And these are still the lower end estimates.

On this much, though, everyone agrees: If we reopen too soon, the virus will come roaring back. We’ll see-saw between openings and closures, a dizzying economic decline that could last for years.

Instead, we need to supercharge our testing, right now, and hire thousands of people to track the virus’ silent spread. The state also needs to put testing material where it’s most needed, to advance the public health, not allow cities to have different policies or open testing to any nervous person.

Murphy announced Friday that asymptomatic people will now be tested at two state sites. This is appropriate for frontline health care workers, or if you’re forced to take care of an elderly relative, in essence a frontline worker. But otherwise it doesn’t make sense from a public health standpoint.

Even if you think you have a good justification to get tested, wait a minute. First a nurse or home health aide should get it, and then you.

Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop acted early, contracted directly with a lab, put $1.5 million toward testing and opened it to all. The hotline has been getting 1,000 calls an hour.

From his point of view, it makes sense to scramble for the first place in line, and we don’t blame him. People want to get tested, for sure, and a populous city like his will have more cases.

But the governor should be doing for Jersey what he wants President Trump to do for America: Centralize purchasing and distribution to ensure the materials go where they are needed most. That includes test kits.

And make sure the public understands that without a much more drastic increase in testing, any return to life as normal is at your own risk. It is at the risk of your aging parents, and all of our economic survival.

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