Gov. Phil Murphy talks about New Jersey’s rising COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations during his weekly coronavirus briefing Monday, Jan. 3, 2021. (Photo courtesy of the governor’s office)
As COVID-19’s highly contagious omicron variant surges, Gov. Phil Murphy said Monday he has asked the Federal Emergency Management Agency to send “strike teams” to work in the state’s hospitals and nursing homes, which have been overwhelmed with sick patients and residents at the same time the virus has decimated their staffs.
Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli said many facilities are reporting as much as 30% of their staff is out sick with the coronavirus, burdening health care workers who are treating so many patients with COVID-19 that many hospitals have suspended elective procedures.
Murphy and Persichilli delivered this latest coronavirus news Monday at a briefing the governor’s office announced would be remote after First Lady Tammy Murphy tested positive for COVID-19. She remains asymptomatic, and Murphy and the rest of his family have continued to test negative, the governor said. The Murphys — who recently returned from vacationing in Costa Rica — are fully vaccinated and boosted, he added.
At Monday’s briefing, Persichilli warned the worst may be yet to come, predicting a peak of between 6,000 to 9,000 hospitalizations on Jan. 11. The pandemic’s previous peak of hospitalizations was 8,270 in April 2020. But the omicron variant has sent hospitalizations climbing daily, with 4,715 people hospitalized on Sunday, compared to 2,979 just one week earlier, she said.
“Hopefully the trajectory comes down as fast as it goes up,” Persichilli said.
About 70% of those seeking hospital care are either unvaccinated or not fully vaccinated, Murphy said.
“We have more people in the hospital today than at any point in the past year,” Murphy said. “Take omicron seriously, wear your masks, get your booster, don’t take a cavalier attitude. Go get tested.”
Murphy also said he wants the Legislature to approve a 90-day extension for some of the emergency powers he was given during the pandemic, saying, “We need to remain on a war footing to ensure that we can get resources to where they need to be, when they need to be there.”
The latest wave of virus cases is hampering school districts’ plans to stick to in-person learning as students return from winter break.
COVID-19 rates have doubled among students and quadrupled among school staff from late November to late December, and as of Monday, 102 children were hospitalized with confirmed or suspected COVID-19 — nearly twice that of a week ago, state data shows.
Murphy said the state has no plans to order schools to go virtual. Instead, he said, he and Persichilli directed schools to adopt new “test to stay” policies for asymptomatic students who have been exposed to sick classmates or teachers. Under that approach, such students can remain in school, instead of quarantining at home, as long as they continue to test negative on regular COVID tests and remain masked.
Persichilli said she has asked pharmacies and other test providers around the state to prioritize testing of children, in order to contain the spread in schools.
The need for COVID-19 tests has far outpaced providers’ capacity. Testing has been in such high demand that many testing sites close early, and a state program that sends free saliva tests to residents had to cap how many tests they mail out to 30,000 a day, Persichilli said. More than 463,000 residents have ordered them since they became available last month, she added.
A new federal testing site capable of testing 1,000 people a day opened in East Orange on New Year’s Day.
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