On Thursday, June 25, Governor Phil Murphy held his daily press conference addressing the latest developments in the state’s war against COVID-19.
The Department of Labor released unemployment figures, reporting 33,000 initial claims last week, bringing the department’s totals to 1.3 million claims and $8.2B in benefits paid. Murphy said, “96% of all those deemed eligible received at least one payment.” Many of the new calls coming into the call center can be traced to specific issues. “Even with this shift in volume to the call center, we understand some residents are experiencing wait times and we urge your continued patience.”
Murphy reported that he had a “civil but frank” discussion with postal authorities regarding ballot issues, where he asked about their training protocols and manpower status relative to the May 12 local elections. “We need them punching fully at their weight.”
Murphy said that regarding the 2020 census, 63.6% of NJ households have responded online or on the phone and that NJ is ahead of the national response rate, but “we cannot let up” until NJ reaches 100%. He emphasized the benefits to the state with a fully accounted-for population. “We all know we were dramatically under-counted in 2010,” he said, adding that “we continue to pay a tremendous price” as a result. “The urgency to fill out the census couldn’t be greater and the time to do it is right now,” the governor said. “Folks, make sure you’re counted.”
He reported an additional 406 positive tests, 170,196 total cases. The positivity rate stands at 3.65%. The rate of transmission (Rt) was 0.88, up slightly over the past week. The governor said that the Rt has increased in 16 counties. “Remember, daily positivity and rate of transmission… are the greatest indicators of COVID 19 spread in the here and now…. but we cannot let up, even for one day… and everyone should go out and get tested.” He said that there’s an “alarming increase” in the number of young people testing positive.
The governor said that there are now more than 250 locations to get a COVID 19 test. “Testing leads to better data,” which helps guide recovery going forward.
There have been 56 new admissions while 108 patients have left the hospitals.
“With regards to the key metrics we follow, we remain in a place where we feel comfortable to continue our Stage II restart,” Murphy said.
The confirmed positive totals have risen to 13,018. “An almost unfathomable number,” reporting 1,854 “probable” COVID deaths, bringing a total known lost to 14,872.
“We do not anticipate that this number will grow significantly, however, some changes are to be expected… on our dashboard and other documents we will report these separately,” Murphy said. “We report this out of a sense of solemn duty.”
Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli said she spoke to the CT and NY health commissioners to coordinate guidance regarding out of state travelers from high active states, including returning NJ residents. “The advisory applies to any person 10 per 100,000 residents or a 10% or higher positivity rate over a 7 day average. Those who work in critical infrastructure are exempt from the advisory including truckers and certain other workers in the transportation industry. She said that there are currently there are 8 states meeting the criteria for self-quarantine: Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, Florida, N. Carolina, S. Carolina, Texas, and Utah. Washington had been on the list, but as their figures improved, they were removed from the list. “The list of states is fluid and will be updated weekly. New Jersey is relying on individuals to do the right thing and self quarantine on arrival.” She also added that if people get tested on arrival, they should quarantine until they get their results. Documentation will be forthcoming providing further guidance.
If residents need support services, she said, they should call their NJ211 or their local health departments.
The commissioner reported that the daily positivity rate has increased slightly. North – 2.26%, Central – 3.85%, South – 5.39%. She ended her report asking residents to get tested, a request echoed by the governor throughout his briefing.
Probable but not lab confirmed fatalities
Dr. Edward Lifshitz, Medical Director of the Department of Health, said that “Today we are reporting probable deaths,” and that they were broken down into three different groups of people. “One group are those who may have died and less a less specific test done, so we’re not quite as sure with that test, probably related to COVID but we can’t say for sure. A larger group are those who have died as part of a known outbreak… who had symptoms suggestive of COVID but never got tested… the third group are those we pick up looking through death certificates… those are searched to see if any of those match COVID… those are also counted as probable deaths.”
Lifshitz said the most common way to make the determination was by an investigation by the local health departments, which he called the “boots on the ground.” If they determine the death was due to COVID 19, it gets entered into their system as a confirmed COVID 19 death. “That happens relatively quickly… the slower way is through the death certificate process.” He said that the state is “essentially caught up” with those cases, however.
“More people will be added to this probable list as time goes on but we’re not expecting a huge jump… because it is a slow process… these are numbers that we’ll be reporting once a week.”
“We do our best to get the numbers out there as accurately as we can,” Liftshitz said, adding that it would not be possible to have 100% perfection.
State Police Colonel Patrick Callahan reported three violations of the executive orders. He said a Hoboken bar owner was cited with two other cases in Linden and Willingboro.
“These are not always forever and always life sentences in terms of closures,” Murphy said. “We hope to be able to continue to address indoor venues and gyms are hard…. fitness is not just a part of our physical health but also mental health.”
Murphy said that “overwhelmingly” flare ups were from indoor activities like bars and “over-packed” indoor situations. “That’s where this virus takes off.” The governor added that, “It’s not forever, we hope these numbers continue to stay good… if not we’ll have to be more careful… it’s just that simple.”
Murphy responded to an ACLU report giving New Jersey bad marks on prison deaths as a result of COVID 19, saying he had not read it but, “Our prison population, both inmates and staff, are in a vulnerable at-risk community,” he said. “It has not been an easy one to deal with and you’re balancing public health and public safety all the time.”
With regards to the state asking those coming into New Jersey from one of the listed states, Murphy said did not specifically address explicit methods of enforcement. He did, however, praise the, “Smart, responsible, doing the right thing behavior that folks have taken from day one. The fact that we have the paucity of non-compliant reports… people have been doing the right thing and we need them to continue doing the right thing. I would add, the testing piece… is an essential piece of this advisory. Get tested. Ask yourself, have I been at risk? Have I been in a packed bar in another state?”
Murphy said that the Health Commissioner has the ability to “single out” non-compliant behavior, but neither she nor the state itself could “put up guards” at the borders of New Jersey. “You can’t constitutionally do those things in the United States–this has been tried by some other states… could you ramp up public awareness? Could you do things… using the bully pulpit? We take no joy in other states’ challenges… we know the awful price you pay for that, we’re praying they get better fast.”
Some businesses are complaining there’s no guidance for indoor dining and casinos, three month stop gap spending bill. Colonel, do you support the medical release of Diana Hoffman who killed Trooper Marc Castellano.
The governor and Colonel Callahan were asked if they supported the COVID-related release of Diana Hoffman, who pleaded guilty in fabricating a false report which ultimately resulted in the death of State Police Trooper Marc Castellano. Murphy said that, “I have no sympathy for Ms Hoffman. She committed a heinous crime. That trooper is a hero and he lost his life because of her. We have been clear that we are not simply opening the doors wide releasing inmates… placement on some list doesn’t guarantee release…. When I hear her name and I think of the life that was lost as a result of this, my head boils.”
Colonel Callahan said that he had spoken with the trooper’s mother, as it has been ten years since his death, and “it hurts as much as it did ten years ago.” Callahan made it clear he does not support her release “in any way, shape, or form.”
Employees are being ask to take time off by July 31 to qualify for the federal $600. Would it have been better to sign the bipartisan bill to spread out the days off?
The governor was told that restaurants and casinos still needed information about the best ways to operate under the new conditions. Guidance is “very complicated, one of the largest guidance we’ve put together,” Judith said, but it would be coming out soon.
“We have to get this right,” Murphy said.
Responding to a statement that there may have been COVID-19 cases as early as January, Dr. Lifshitz said they had not seen any evidence of COVID deaths prior to the state’s known case, “before March 1st.”
The governor was asked if he would support Assembly Speaker Coughlin’s assertion that “all options are on the table” including a tax increase to bridge the budget gap. Murphy replied that, “Everything’s gotta be on the table, not all of it happily… I’ll leave it there.” He did include, however, that the circumstances had been “gutting priorities dear to us and to so many…. None of us look at where we are as a fiscal matter with a lot of joy right now. We need to be able to bond… we need direct federal cash assistance. We take zero joy… you’re seeing states of all different political realities getting hit by this awful thing.”
Responding to a question as to whether or not he was concerned about a possible second wave of the coronavirus, Murphy said, “If people don’t behave and do the right thing–we run the risk of this coming back. If you’re inside and its sedentary and ventilation is not terrific… you gotta do the right thing.” He repeated the need to wear a face covering, practice social distancing, washing hands with soap and water, and “don’t go if you’ve got symptoms”.
There was reason to be optimistic, however. “Here’s one really good silver lining… we now have as good a testing regime as any in America.” He listed protocols and assets that weren’t available at the start of the pandemic. “We can much more quickly… drive it to the ground. That’s a good thing we’ve spent months building….” He said he was concerned, nevertheless, and urged people to “continue to do the right things.”
Murphy flatly denied that the tri-state agreement to ask for quarantines from out of state travelers was at all retaliatory. “I can’t speak for Gov. Cuomo or Lamont, this is not retaliation at all, that’s from the heart. We have gone through hell… We are trying to do everything we can to not go through that hell… we take no solace or joy in the hell that other states are going through that we have gone through… we can’t stop you at the border because you have a certain license plate, this is America, you can’t do that…”
When asked if there something to be done to further help small businesses, renters, and those with mortgages struggling, Murphy repeated the need for bonding and direct federal cash assistance. When told that some gyms have had to shutter their doors, Murphy said, “All I can say is I’ve got enormous sympathy… other businesses have closed.”
As county workers return to their offices, Murphy said that face masks were essential. “You’ve gotta wear a face covering, we’re not recommending it, we’re mandating it.”
“It is personal responsibility, it is common sense… for the common good,” Murphy said as the briefing came to a close.