Confirmed COVID-19 cases in NJ top 111,000 and death toll surpasses 6,000 as governor unveils his ‘road back’ principles

Gov. Phil Murphy unvelis his “road back”
framework on Monday.

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy on Monday shared the principles that will guide officials when making decisions about re-opening businesses and restoring the state’s economy. Murphy’s framework for rebooting the economy, which he calls “the road back,” puts public health first, he said.

The governor also said the stay-at-home-order that has been in effect since March 21 will remain in effect in its entirety until further notice. 

“For us to move out from underneath this order, we will need to see, at the least, a sustained reduction in the number of new positive COVID-19 test results, new COVID-19 related hospitalizations, and other metrics,” Murphy said. “We also will need to see our hospitals step down from functioning under a crisis standard of care. We will be looking for trend lines that show 14-day decreases. We cannot look at just one day or one snapshot in time and say we’ve succeeded or failed. We will need to look across a length of time, and to not be distracted by statistical noise.”

Before describing the road back, Murphy gave an update on COVID-19 statistics for the state but cautioned that the numbers were not complete because of the earlier-than-usual press briefing time Monday. The state received another 2,146 positive COVID-19 results early Monday, bringing the total number of confirmed cases in New Jersey to 111,188.

“As we look at the curve of new COVID-19 cases, it remains flat, but as we will discuss in a few moments before we can get ourselves on the road to recovery, we need this curve to bend down and stay down,” Murphy said.

Another 106 residents have died as a result of COVID-19 complications, bringing the state total to 6,044 deaths. As of Sunday night, there were 6,307 COVID-19 patients in hospitals around the state, and 1,801 patients were in either critical or intensive care. The number is down roughly nine percent from a week ago. Ventilator use continues to trend downward, with 1,303 COVID-19 patients on ventilators as of Sunday night, down 18 percent from a week ago. There were 314 new hospitalizations Sunday, and hospitals reported 480 total discharges. “We continue to see discharges exceed new admissions,” Murphy said.

Murphy thanked healthcare workers and first responders for their hard work. He also thanked residents for practicing social distancing and staying at home to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

“To be clear, our progress to date has been driven by the hard work of tens of thousands of dedicated health care professionals and first responders and it has been aided and amplified by the work of the millions of you who have kept the need for social distancing and personal responsibility close to your hearts,” Murphy said. “This progress has been carried on in the memory of those we have lost, and in solidarity with the family and friends left behind. Because of the work of our New Jersey family, we can announce today a vision to put our state, and our people, on the road to recovery. However, there is still much work to be done. If we let up even one bit with our aggressive social distancing measures too soon – even one day too soon – we can easily see ourselves skidding off this road.”

Murphy said state officials will be guided by one overarching principle in preparing for the state’s reopening – that public health creates economic health.

“That’s the order in which we must proceed. It means that before we reopen non-essential stores and businesses, before we can reopen our parks, or before we allow in-person dining in our restaurants, among any host of other activities, people need to know first and foremost that their health will be safeguarded from COVID-19,” Murphy said. “With that principle as our starting point, we can put ourselves on the road back with a clear vision for moving forward, guided by objective metrics and mileposts.”

Murphy said the road back must be driven by data, science, health progress, and common sense.

“We will use rigorous standards that are equally smart and thoughtful. And, everything we do will be filtered through our New Jersey values,” he said. “This road map is designed with one goal only – to restore the health, strength, and well-being of New Jersey for the long-term. But, let me repeat a basic truth. Until we give the public confidence that they should not be fearful, we cannot take further steps.  A plan that is needlessly rushed is a plan that will needlessly fail.”

Murphy discussed the six principles that will guide decision making:

  • Following trends of sustained reductions in new COVID-19 cases and other key metrics reflecting a decreasing burden of disease
  • Expanding COVID-19 testing capacity and speeding-up the return of results
  • Conducting robust contact tracing
  • Ensuring that there are safe places where those positively diagnosed in the future can isolate.
  • When the first four principles have been accomplished, then responsibly restarting the economy to restore economic health will be the fifth principle.
  • Ensuring the state’s resiliency for the future is the sixth principle.

“If we follow this road, we give ourselves the best possible chance to succeed in the months ahead. Our first order of business is to secure the public’s health, and, as I noted, this will require us to meet our first four principles,” Murphy said.

Murphy said state officials need to ensure that New Jersey has a robust and fully functioning healthcare system ready to meet the challenges ahead. “It’s not just our hospitals, but also ambulatory facilities, long term care facilities, provider practices – everywhere health care is delivered.  And, when we see fewer cases, and fewer hospitalizations, we know our system will be prepared for these challenges,” he said.

He also said the state needs to significantly ramp up diagnostic testing and at least double the current testing capacity. The system will also need to be prepared to conduct targeted surveillance testing within communities to further protect against the resurgence of COVID-19 and to build datasets that help health officials better understand the spread of the virus, he said.

Murphy said state officials are actively working toward doubling diagnostic testing capacity by the end of May, and having everything in place from testing kits to the lab capacity necessary to ensure a quick turnaround of results.

“We will have a flexible testing plan that is accessible to all residents who need it, whether it be through walk-up and drive-thru sites, tests at local pharmacies, or even at-home testing capabilities,” he said. “We will prioritize testing for health-care workers, other essential workers, and vulnerable populations. And, we will ensure those who test positive will be linked to a health care provider.”

Robust contact tracing for confirmed COVID-19 cases will also be required, Murphy said.

“Whenever a new positive COVID-19 test is returned, we must be able to leverage not just that individual’s recollections, but also employ new technologies to help identify those with whom that individual may have come into contact,” Murphy said.”We will need to recruit and deploy an army of contact tracers whose sole purpose will be to identify these individuals, so we can follow-up and ensure they do not contribute to further spread of COVID-19.”

The contact tracing program will require anywhere from 15 to 81 workers for every 100,000 residents. For New Jersey, this would mean the need for anywhere between roughly 1,300 to more than 7,000 workers, Murphy said.

“We are also actively engaging a number of tech companies in a search for innovative solutions that can assist in this massive undertaking, and not only make the work of human contact tracers more efficient, but perhaps mean we need fewer of them,” Murphy said.

Residents of the state who test positive in the future will also need to be provided with a safe and free place to isolate themselves and protect others from COVID-19, and will need to be provided with other services, Murphy said. “We are fully prepared that, when we restart our economy, we will see new COVID-19 cases. That much we are sure about. Our goal will be to prevent these new cases from multiplying,” he said.

Murphy said a sustained drop in the curve, expanded testing, contact tracing, and safe places for people to isolate are all critical in order to give residents confidence that they don’t have to fear going out once the economy is restored. “Restarting our economy and returning people to work will be done methodically, strategically, and responsibly,” he said.

A restart and recovery commission is being formed to guide the recovery process. The commission will include economists, business leaders, labor leaders, and health care experts with local, national, and global experience. Murphy will announce all of the commission members on Tuesday.

“It will be their task to balance multiple competing needs to ensure we arrive at equitable decisions that work for every community in our state. And, I will ask them to help us, and our businesses, leverage any and all available federal funds and programs to support our recovery,” Murphy said. “I will ask the commission to give the highest priority for reopening using a clear standard of ‘essential and safe’ beginning with businesses, industries, and activities which are not only essential to our economy, but which provide the lowest risk of disease transmission. Then we can move up the matrix, bringing more businesses and activities online until we achieve a fully functioning and open economy.”

Murphy said residents should expect to see the continuation of social distancing measures, including requirements for face coverings in certain locations and for work-from-home directives for employees who do not need to report to a physical location.

“I want nothing more than to see every Main Street filled with shoppers and diners once again. I want our construction sites roaring with activity once again. I want to see the shore humming through the summer,” he said. “We will move as quickly as we can, but as safely as we must. We have to be thoughtful in how we unfold our economy. This virus is now among us, and our task will be to contain it as best we can.”

Murphy also cautioned that people can’t think of COVID-19 as “one-and-done.” 

“Whether we are hit with a rebound of COVID-19, or a different strain, or an altogether new virus outbreak, we have learned valuable lessons that we would be foolish to ignore,” he said. “Ensuring New Jersey’s resiliency for the next outbreak, and that no one will be left unprotected because of racial or socio-economic status, must be part of our response to this outbreak. COVID-19 showed no favorites in ravaging our state, and neither will we in preparing for the next wave. We must use this window of opportunity to fill gaps and fortify our health care system.”

Murphy said he will seek to ensure that the state, as well as hospitals, first responders, and essential workers, have enough personal protective equipment, ventilators, supplies, and staff. “That means building our own state stockpile of PPE, from masks to gloves and everything in-between, so we can properly outfit not just our front-line health and public safety responders, but also our essential workforce,” he said. “And, it also means we must have ventilators on hand that we can push out to hospitals before they hit crisis mode.”

The state has spent more than $125 million purchasing PPE since the crisis began. The state has also purchased more than 500 ventilators.

“Throughout this process, we have purchased hundreds of ventilators. Don’t think for a moment that we’re going to be sending any of them back once the current emergency ends,” he said. “We cannot find ourselves in another situation where we must rely on the federal government, or our corporate and philanthropic partners, to source what we need. We must build our resiliency now.”

Murphy said New Jersey will coordinate efforts with other states in the region.

“This isn’t just about New Jersey. For us to rush ahead of either Pennsylvania or New York, or any of our other four state partners, or vice versa, would risk returning our entire region back into lockdown mode,” he said. “This doesn’t mean that we will or even can take every step at the exact same time or in the exact same way as our neighbors, but, we will share information and make decisions based on the guidance of our public health and security experts, and with an eye on our north star, which is to protect lives across our seven states and across our nation. I think I speak for all seven governors when I say we only want to have to do this once.”