By the numbers, New Jersey, like the rest of the nation and the world, is facing yet another wave of the coronavirus scourge driven by a surge in the so-called Delta variant that’s exponentially more contagious than the original virus.
According to the New York Times, on July 5, New Jersey had 86 new cases with a 7-day average of 191. As of July 22, the state was seeing 909 new cases with a 7-day average of 831.
Daily death counts and hospitalizations, while nowhere near their highpoints, are on the increase both in our state and around the nation.
“The national outlook is worsening quickly, with a fourfold increase in new cases per day over the last month,” reported the New York Times on July 24. “Hospitalizations and deaths are also growing, but at far lower rates than cases.”
The CDC most recently estimated that the Delta strain now accounts for 83 percent of the confirmed cases across the country with states like Missouri and Arkansas, with the nation’s lowest vaccination rates, now in the kind of full-blown crisis mode that gripped the northeast at the start of the pandemic.
The Delta variant (B.1.617.2) was first flagged in India in October of 2020 and has now spread to 85 countries. “It has been established to be more infectious, and it also appears to be more effective at evading vaccines, though people who are fully vaccinated still have significant protection against illness,” according to the Wall Street Journal.
After the new strain hit Britain, the government extended its COVID-19 restrictions for another four weeks, while in Israel and Australia pandemic restrictions were reimposed. In Los Angeles, the Delta spike prompted officials to reimpose universal indoor masking, which back in May the CDC called for lifting based on an honor system for the vaccinated.
In New York City, where numbers were also on the upswing, Mark Levine the chair of City Council’s Health Committee called for the city to reimpose the indoor masking mandate which Mayor de Blasio resisted, maintaining the top priority should be expanding the reach of the vaccination drive.
The Delta spike got traction as the vaccination drive lost steam both regionally and nationally, with President Biden falling far short of his July 4 goal of having 70 percent of adults having had at least their first shot.
Back on July 19, the last time Gov. Murphy convened a COVID-19 press conference, the Delta variant was already making headlines nationally and prompting concern locally.
“We do not have a pandemic among the vaccinated,” Murphy told reporters. “We only have a pandemic among the unvaccinated. Thankfully, our vaccination numbers continue to climb.”
Throughout that press availability, Murphy maintained his trademark optimism. “These variants are not raging like this forever and for always,” he said. “This is not a – like we’ve said a lot of things, this is not a permanent condition that we’re in.”
DELTA HITTING KIDS
But among his subject matter experts there was serious concern that the state was at a precarious juncture.
“Despite New Jersey’s successful vaccination program, many residents are still unvaccinated, which is
leading to increases in cases and hospitalizations in our state,” said Department of Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli. “New Jersey has seen a 20% increase in unvaccinated patients in our hospitals. These hospitalizations are preventable. We have safe and effective vaccines to prevent COVID-19 hospitalization and death.”
Persichilli continued. “Nationally, the Delta variant, which is highly transmissible and virulent is driving cases in unvaccinated residents including children. It is expected that this variant will cause increasing cases among children who cannot be vaccinated including severe cases. We are concerned. In both Mississippi and Alabama, some children diagnosed with COVID-19 have needed care in intensive care units and also needed the assistance of ventilators.”
According to Persichilli, even In New Jersey, “case rates among children under 12 have increased in line with our overall increase in cases” with a “29 percent increase among those 4 years of age and under” compared to the month before. “For those 5 to 10 years of age, the case rate has increased 15%. For those 11 to 13 years of age, case rates per 100,000 have increased 36%. This is troubling because those under 12 cannot be vaccinated yet, so they don’t have the protection that vaccine offers.”
STAY THE COURSE?
When asked on July 19, by Matt Arco from NJ.com if the state should reimpose the max mandate Murphy said “we’re not there yet. We continue to be comfortable with where we are… Our strong, strong, strong preference is to not go back. We are among the most vaccinated states in the country, and that’s a huge positive. We need more folks to get vaccinated…..Our strong hope is that we can stay as we are.”
Over the weekend, Alyana Alfaro, Gov. Murphy’s press spokesperson said there was still no change in the administration’s views on re-imposing a universal mask mandate. Murphy is scheduled to have his regular COVID briefing tomorrow.
On MSNBC on Sunday, Dr. Anthony Faucci, the nation’s leading infectious disease official warned that the rapid rise in Delta linked infections was not just a threat to the unvaccinated.
“If you allow the virus to freely circulate because so many people are unvaccinated you give it yet again another opportunity to mutate even more and you may wind up with creating a variant that in fact eludes the protection of the vaccine,” Faucci said.
In Los Angeles, the Delta spike has prompted officials to reimpose universal indoor masking, which back in May the CDC called for ending for the vaccinated.
That move was blasted at the time by the unions representing essential workers like in the healthcare and retail sectors, who warned it was based entirely on a naïve honor system which failed to account for the tens of millions of unvaccinated Americans as well as the ongoing risk posed by variants.
In our region, back in May, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew quickly followed the CDC guidance, while New Jersey’s Gov. Phil Murphy, heeding the unions’ concerns, waited a week or so until falling in line with New York on May 28, in time for the make-or-break Memorial Day weekend for the Jersey Shore.
Murphy’s initial stance also earned his props from frontline health care unions like the Health Professionals Allied Employees AFT/AFL-CIO, the state’s largest healthcare union.
“We are writing to applaud your announcement that NJ will maintain an indoor masking mandate despite the new CDC guidance that fully vaccinated people could go without face coverings and social distancing,” wrote the leadership of the Health Professionals Allied Employees, the state’s largest healthcare union. “As representatives of the healthcare community, we support your choosing caution, as the CDC prematurely recommended that our nation return to normal. “
He also garnered words of support from the national office of United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) which represents 1.3 million essential food and retail workers including 52,000 in New Jersey.
The UFCW blasted the CDC’s rollback on masking, observing correctly it would force frontline retail workers to play “vaccination police” to sort out which customers would have to continue to wear their masks.
“New Jersey frontline grocery workers have put their lives on the line daily to make sure families have the food they need during the pandemic,” wrote International UFCW President Marc Perrone. “Governor Murphy is showing the leadership New Jersey workers and families need by putting public health and safety first and keeping the state’s mask mandate in place.”
In justifying lifting the indoor masking mandate, Murphy noted that to holdout would have put his state’s businesses at a disadvantage because potential patrons who wanted to forgo a mask could just cross the river to another state where the mandate had been lifted.
Dr. Celine Gounder, one of the nation’s leading public health experts, who served on President Biden’s COVID transition taskforce, praised Murphy’s initial stand of keeping the universal masking mandate in place.
She warned that the CDC would have been better advised to wait for the vaccination rate in communities of color hit the 50 percent mark before rolling back the mask and social distancing requirements.
“It is the duty of public health not to just look out for the individual, but the population and specifically the most vulnerable among us,” Dr. Gounder said at press briefing held after the CDC rollback.
During a recent interview, Dr. Gounder called for the return of the universal mask mandate for indoor public settings.
Newark community activist Lawrence Hamm, the chairman of the People’s Organization for Progress said the pandemic toll on his community has been catastrophic and that as soon as he heard about the Delta variant and saw the vast racial disparity in vaccination rates, he resumed masking in interior public settings like the store or the Post Office.
“There is still a high level of distrust of the pharmaceutical companies and of government,” Hamm said. “And there’s what Trump did. I know a lot of people who were hesitant about taking the vaccine because Trump was pressing for a very quick development of the vaccine and that contributes to the hesitancy.”
Hamm continued. “Even my attitude was wait and see. But after I saw those stats come out in later December about how African Americans were being effected by the virus and the disparity of the people actually getting the shot….I was like, sign up for this shot.”
MAYORS WEIGH IN
“I do believe that based on the fact that the Delta variant has reared its ugly head across the United States, and we have seen cases rising on a daily basis I do believe serious consideration should be given to mandating the wearing of masks indoors,” said Plainfield Mayor Adrian O. Mapp, during a phone interview.
Mapp said his community, which has been battling the same vaccine hesitancy that’s been documented
in African American communities across the country is over the 50 percent threshold but remains “nowhere near close to where we need to be, which is the reason why we are using the American Rescue Plan funding to provide incentives to our residents to get them vaccinated.”
Mapp continued. “So, we are giving away four $5,000 checks every month as an incentive to encourage our residents to get vaccinated. It is a lottery. Whenever residents go to receive the vaccine, they are receiving a ticket which places them in a drawing.” (August 13 the first one and monthly through the end of the year.)
“We will be guided by the data,” said Atlantic City Mayor Marty Small Jr. “We said if we see an uptick, we will make the necessary adjustments. I am not a health expert. We lean on our health experts, and we will be guided by their recommendations.”
Meanwhile, Small said his city presses on to get as many residents vaccinated as possible.
“We have people in the streets going door to door trying to get people to get vaccinated and we hope people take this seriously,” he said.
“People just don’t believe. There are a lot of people who are followers and if this person didn’t get it, they are not going to get it.
The Atlantic City leader said that big pharma’s multiple scandals, including the recent settlements over its role in creating the opioid crisis, have undermined the public’s confidence in the industry.
“But not only that, the Johnson & Johnson situation didn’t help anything,” Small said, referencing the CDC’s decision to pause the administering of J&J’s vaccine while it investigated the incidence of a rare but severe blood clotting in several vaccine recipients. That pause was lifted on April 23 after both the CDC and FDA determined “the vaccine’s known and potential benefits outweigh it known potential risks in individuals 18 years of age and older.”
Paterson Mayor Andre Sayegh’s efforts at tracing COVID and getting vaccination acceptance in his majority minority community has won national acclaim.
“Remarkably our vaccination rate is over 75 percent, that’s first dose and according to what we have been informed that’s one of the best in state for a city our size,” said Sayegh, adding that he’s aiming to get over 80 percent. “We were really aggressive. We have a mobile unit that is in the community, we do it at our health center and we had a point of dispensing for quite some time from January to June.”
Sayegh continued. “You have to leverage the faith-based community. We went to the houses of worship and with the help of the state and FEMA we established pop up vaccination sites. So, that helped too. You got to take it where people are. Getting into an African American church or a Latino church, that really helped.”
The city aimed at including its’ undocumented residents by “making the outreach welcoming” and combining “testing, contact tracing and the opportunity to get vaccinated all at the same time, according to Sayegh.
Paterson has continued to require that all visitors to City Hall wear masks out of respect for its civil servants and “because we don’t know if they are vaccinated or not and we are not asking for the cards and because the Delta variant is highly transmissible.”
Peter Woolley is a political scientist and the director of FDU’s School of Public and Global as well as the founder of FDU’s Public Mind Poll. Woolley believes that Gov. Murphy, who is running for re-election, does not have much room to maneuver amidst the Delta surge.
“So, one of the pressures is from the public because it’s not clear the public has tolerance for the re-imposing of tight rules,” Woolley said. “It’s not clear to me that the public will be tolerant of closing down bars again, closing down the boardwalk. The public is interested in going to the beach and having a beer. And they are glad to not to have to wear their mask.”
He continued. “Whatever the Governor does, he has to make sure his directive will be followed and that relies a great deal on how well the public will cooperate. It’s not a matter of what the Governor wants or what the Department of Public Health departments want. It’s a matter of what you can persuade the public to do.”
As a consequence, Woolley expects elected officials, looking to make progress in the margins, will now go after mandating vaccine compliance among public employees, rather than risking the public’s ire over re-imposing COVID restrictions.
“If you can’t move the entire mass public to cooperate than I think the Governor has to start finding smaller constituencies that he can control,” Woolley said. “Hospital workers is one of them. Certainly, any public employee at the local, county or state level can be leveraged.
Last week San Francisco announced it would be imposing a vaccine mandate on all of its civil servants, including police officers, firefighters as well as healthcare workers starting in September.
Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a vaccine mandate for the 40,000 workers who work in the city’s municipal hospital system. Starting in Aug. 2 those workers will also have the option of submitting to weekly testing and forgoing the shot.
Currently, close to 60 percent of the city’s public hospital workforce is vaccinated as compared to 43 percent for the NYPD and roughly 50 percent for the FDNY’s firefights and EMS personnel.
Across the country, the Washington Post has reported vaccine rates continue to lag significantly among law enforcement agencies. When InsiderNJ called the New Jersey State Police of July 23, the public information office committed to supply that agency’s vaccination rate next week.
Whatever the Governor’s course of action, Woolley observes the lack of a basic societal consensus on reality is ultimately hampering the public health response.
“With coronavirus as with climate change, and so many other issues where you stand depends on what channel you are watching on TV,” he said.