Pandemic response winds down as governor says virus enters endemic stage

Officials warn of future surges but say advances leave fewer risks than in 2020

By: - March 4, 2022 3:16 pm

(Edwin J. Torres | New Jersey Governor’s Office)

New Jersey appeared to enter a new stage of the pandemic Friday as Gov. Phil Murphy suspended virus press briefings that were a linchpin in the administration’s virus response, but officials warned of a continued threat even as the governor said the state would continue to wind down its virus restrictions.

The governor’s last briefing came on the second anniversary of the state’s first diagnosed case of COVID-19. About 33,000 New Jerseysans have lost their lives to the virus since March 2020.

“As coronavirus moves from pandemic to endemic and as we transition away from crisis management to a more normal way of life, it is the right time. We have asked so much of each and every New Jerseyan for the past two years. You have overwhelmingly delivered, and then some,” Murphy said.

He added, “We think we can responsibly live a normal life with COVID, but an endemic means it remains in our midst. The flu is still with us 104 years after the pandemic of 1918.”

The state’s school mask mandate — one of increasingly few virus restrictions that has remained amid tumbling case counts following the omicron variant surge — will sunset on Monday along with the state’s public health emergency declaration, which lent the governor broad executive powers.

Murphy said other restrictions, like a masking requirement in state buildings, will likely be lifted in the coming days and weeks, though vaccine requirements for workers in health care centers, prisons, and other congregate settings appear poised to continue.

Republicans, long opposed to vaccine mandates, said the state should withdraw its requirement that such workers be vaccinated and boosted by May 11.

“Governor Murphy just said that the time when large-scale mitigation measures were necessary has passed,” Sen. Tony Bucco (R-Morris) said in a statement. “That’s exactly why the governor should lift his overbearing vaccine mandates for health care workers, nursing home aides, and corrections officers. Nobody should be fired from their job because they want to make their own health care decisions.”

The shift in the administration’s outlook is fueled partly by lower mortality rates of the omicron variant and advances in treatment and prevention tools, like vaccines and antiviral drugs, unavailable at the crisis’s outset.

Though case counts have plummeted to a fraction of their peak, officials said COVID-19 continues to pose a threat to those with comorbid conditions and urged residents not to grow too comfortable with a virus that continues to kill New Jersey residents each day.

“To put it another way, tomorrow the weather’s supposed to get a whole lot nicer, a whole lot warmer,” said Ed Lifshitz, medical director of the Department of Health’s communicable disease service. “To me, at least, it seems like we’ve had a very long, cold, dark winter, and believe me, I’m looking forward to some warm weather, putting away my coat, going outside, having a nice walk.

He added: “But I’m not putting away my coat. I’m not throwing away my coat. I know that it may very well get cold again.”

The governor declined to give a timeline for a promised review of the state’s handling of the pandemic.

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Nikita Biryukov
Nikita Biryukov

Nikita Biryukov most recently covered state government and politics for the New Jersey Globe. His tenure there included revelatory stories on marijuana legalization, voting reform and Rep. Jeff Van Drew's decamp to the Republican Party. Earlier, he worked as a freelancer for The Home News Tribune and The Press of Atlantic City.

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