‘Coronavirus is amongst us’ — New cases in NJ spread in community, officials say
EWING — The state's top health official on Wednesday said that two new cases of the coronavirus had no known connection to other infected people or regions with outbreaks, suggesting that the virus is now widespread enough that it is passing among people in community settings.
The state's total presumptive positive cases on Wednesday increased by eight for a total of 23.
They included four more people in Bergen County — which now has had 11 cases, including the state's only death from the virus — two more in Monmouth and two in Middlesex for the first time.
The eight new cases ranged in age from a 66-year-old woman in Hazlet to a 17-year-old girl from Little Silver, a Monmouth County borough that is part of the Red Bank Regional High School District that canceled classes on Tuesday and Wednesday. The district said Wednesday that it would transition to its virtual school instructional plan on Thursday until further notice.
East Brunswick public schools also announced Wednesday that classes and activities would be canceled through Sunday after a township woman tested positive Wednesday.
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The new patients that tested positive on Wednesday:
- 66-year-old woman from Hazlet (Monmouth)
- 74-year-old man from Edison (Middlesex)
- 33-year-old man from Teaneck (Bergen)
- 30-year-old man from Teaneck (Bergen)
- 58-year-old woman from East Brunswick (Middlesex)
- 17-year-old girl from Little Silver (Monmouth)
- 29-year-old man from Bergenfield (Bergen)
- 35-year-old man from Bergenfield (Bergen)
Officials did not identify any hospitals or medical facilities where the people may have been admitted to.
Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli said the new cases remained under investigation but the fact that two people had no known ties to the COVID-19 outbreak was concerning.
"Community spread indicates that the coronavirus is amongst us and we have expectation that that may be the case," she said.
The news raised new alarm in New Jersey about the spread of the coronavirus disease of 2019, or COVID-19, which originated in China late last year. It also came as the World Health Organization declared the global outbreak a pandemic and the CDC announced a $14 million grant to New Jersey to tackle COVID-19.
Also on Wednesday, the nation's director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases testified before the House Oversight and Reform Committee that COVID-19 is 10 times "more lethal" than the seasonal flu.
“Bottom line is it’s going to get worse,” Dr. Anthony Fauci said.
As a result of the latest development, the state was stepping up mitigation efforts, particularly in areas where vulnerable populations would be most at risk.
The state has asked psychiatric facilities to restrict outside activities and screen visitors. Long-term care facilities also have been told to actively screen and restrict visitation.
Hackensack Meridian Health on Wednesday said its nursing and rehabilitation facilities would suspend all in-person visitation except in special circumstances such as end-of-life situations.
“While there are no COVID-19/coronavirus cases at any of our nursing and rehabilitation facilities at this time, this restriction is to help protect the health of our facility residents,” Chief Physician Executive David W. Varga said in a written statement.
The number of presumptive positive cases has gone up on a daily basis since the weekend. The state is investigating 37 more people, Persichilli said Wednesday. State officials said the CDC has not provided them with an explanation for why none of New Jersey's lab tests have yet to be confirmed by the federal agency.
Across the state, several districts have closed schools or extended breaks. Colleges and universities also have been canceling classes and study-abroad programs.
South Brunswick schools closed March 10 because two students were at a private party with a person from out of state later confirmed to have COVID-19. South Amboy and Morristown on Wednesday announced that their St. Patrick's Day parades had been postponed.
Persichilli said the decision on whether to cancel events would have to be made by agencies and organizations on a case-by-case basis.
“At this point, people need to make their own decisions based on the guidance we are giving them, which is to be careful about being near people," she said.
“You know that concerts are close quarters and people are enjoying the concert but also singing and coughing. You just don’t want to expose yourself."
The virus causes mild to severe symptoms of fever, cough and shortness of breath two to 14 days after exposure.
The Word Health Organization on Wednesday officially declared the outbreak a pandemic, a term that it had been avoiding.
"We have called every day for countries to take urgent and aggressive action. We have rung the alarm bell loud and clear,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.
The U.S. death toll has climbed to 31. In New York, more than 200 people have tested positive for COVID-19 while 15 have tested positive in Pennsylvania.
State health officials reiterated that the general population remained at a low risk of contracting the virus although that could change in communities or counties with higher numbers of infected people.
State officials encouraged people who are ill to remain home and encouraged everybody to be vigilant about washing their hands and avoid touching their faces.
"If you are feeling ill, stay home and call your regular healthcare practitioner," Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver said. "Going to work or school sick even with a cold or a seasonal flu only increases the chances that you will pass that illness on to friends, or coworkers."
David Matthau contributed to this report.
Sergio Bichao is deputy digital editor at New Jersey 101.5. Send him news tips: Call 609-359-5348 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.