Governor urges colleges and universities to give students COVID-19 tests before Thanksgiving travel as new daily cases for 15 N.J. counties hit triple digits

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy. Photo: Rich Hundely III.

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy joined with the governors of Pennsylvania, New York, Delaware, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts on Wednesday in urging all colleges and universities to make COVID-19 testing available to residential students before they leave for Thanksgiving break.

“It’s a critical step for reducing the risk of transmission across our region,” Murphy said at his regular press briefing Wednesday, adding that he hopes students who are traveling home next week for Thanksgiving will be staying home through the end of January. Many colleges and universities have shortened their schedules because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and their semesters will end before Thanksgiving. Many of the schools will not start up again until late January or early February.

New Jersey Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli said students should quarantine for 14 days before heading home. If 14 days have not passed and they still return home, they should remain separate from their families when home, wear masks, stay six feet apart from family members, and avoid contact. Anyone who has symptoms or who has tested positive for COVID-19 should not travel home if possible and should isolate for at least 10 days, eating meals alone and using a separate bathroom if they do go home. If that is not possible, the bathroom should be disinfected after each use. They should also use separate utensils, glasses, plates, and other serving ware. “All these steps will help reduce the risk of COVID-19,” Persichilli said.

Holiday travel and celebrations

The governor repeated his plea for residents to not hold large family Thanksgiving gatherings, particularly among different age groups. “It runs the risk of turning the dinner table into a COVID hotspot. Do the right thing when you are behind closed doors. Limit the number of people who are with you, particularly intergenerationally. Practice social distancing and wear face coverings…We’re a few months away from a vaccine and we’ve just got to do the right thing,” Murphy said

“This is not the year to squeeze around the dinner table,” Murphy said. Then he quoted Dr. Mark Horne, president of the Mississippi State Medical Association. “We don’t really want to see mamaw at Thanksgiving and bury her by Christmas,” Murphy said. “Let that sink in before the turkey defrosts.”

Perschilli said people who do celebrate the holiday together should limit interactions, not shake hands, celebrate outdoors, and wear masks when not eating or drinking, even outdoors. The host should supply masks, hand sanitizer, tissues, soap, and single-use towels, and remind people to wash their hands with soap and water regularly for at least 20 seconds. People should limit contact with commonly touched surfaces or shared items like serving utensils, and avoid singing and shouting.

“We cannot let our guard down because we know gatherings provide an opportunity for COVID-19 to spread,” Persichilli said. “Small family gatherings have become a significant driver of increasing cases.”

Persichilli added that residents should not be taken out of long-term care facilities for celebrations, and instead, facilities should be prepared to help residents communicate more with loved ones remotely via phone and video calls. Residents who leave long-term care facilities must quarantine when they return to the facilities.

New Jersey public, charter, and private schools

Over the past week, state officials have confirmed five new COVID-19 outbreaks in schools in New Jersey, and at least 27 new cases tied to those outbreaks. Since the beginning of the school year, 56 outbreaks and 239 cases of in-school COVID-19 transmission have been confirmed. Murphy said the vast majority of the cases were linked to out-of-school activities. The majority of public, charter, parochial, and private schools remain open or are conducting hybrid learning, Murphy said. Ninty-nine districts or school systems are fully open, 529 are offering hybrid learning, 145 districts are fully remote, and 38 districts are using a combination of plans across different buildings based on the ability to distance students in buildings.

Murphy said 35,000 students in the state still do not have computers or Wi-Fi connectivity.

Daily COVID-19 statistics

Another 4,063 people in the state have tested positive for COVID-19, bringing New Jersey’s total number of cases to 289,562. The state will pass the 300,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases over the next few days if current trends continue.

The COVID-19 test positivity rate is 10.88 percent, and the statewide transmission rate keeps rising and is now 1.43.

As of Tuesday night, 2,446 COVID-19 patients were in hospitals in the state, with 461 of those patients in intensive care units and 223 of the patients on ventilators. A total of 288 COVID-19 patients were discharged from hospitals on Tuesday, but 340 new COVID-19 patients were admitted to hospitals. Persichilli said the percentage of COVID-19 patients on ventilators — 42 percent — is the highest percentage in a long time.

Another 27 residents of New Jersey have died as a result of complications from COVID-19, bringing the state total to 14,843 deaths and an additional 1,812 probable COVID-19 deaths. The breakdown of COVID-19 deaths in the state by race: White 54.1 percent, Black 18.1 percent, Hispanic, 20,2 percent, Asian 5.5 percent, other 2.1 percent.

At the state’s veterans homes, one additional resident at the Vineland facility has tested positive for COVID-19. Two state psychiatric hospitals each had a new COVID-19 patient case — Ancora Psychiatric Center and the Ann Klein Forensic Center. Persichilli said full weekly testing will now be done at the psychiatric hospitals and the veteran’s homes.

The COVID-19 test positivity rate for the state is 11.13 percent in the northern part of the state, 10 percent in the central part of the state, and 12.16 percent in the southern portion of the state, Persichilli said.

Fifteen of the 21 counties is the state saw a triple digit increase in cases on Wednesday, including Mercer, Middlesex, Somerset, Burlington and Monmouth counties in the Central New Jersey region.

“There is no way to sugarcoat any of these numbers,” Murphy said of the daily data. “They are not good and they are trending worse. The only way we can reverse these numbers is to wear masks, to social distance, to wash our hands frequently with soap and water, and to not attend any private gatherings outside those with our immediate families within our own homes.”