Amid a surge in new COVID-19 cases, New Jersey is making vaccination progress but COVID-19 mutations could derail efforts to lift more restrictions.

Speaking on CNN on Monday morning, Gov. Phil Murphy said that "we’re watching variants very carefully" and added that concern over these mutations will delay any further lifting of restrictions.

"My guess is that we won’t be opening up further capacities for some time now because of the case load,” he said.

The comment comes a week after he expanded indoor dining to 50% of capacity.

As we pass a year since pandemic restrictions crippled the Garden State economy and sent millions into isolation, some key metrics tied to a return to normal are moving in different directions.

Rise of mutations

COVID-19 mutations remain the biggest speed bump on the road to reopening New Jersey.

Dozens more confirmed cases of COVID-19 mutations have been confirmed in New Jersey. State health officials have not said how often they are testing for the variants, but have indicated it's not a lot. Still, more than 200 cases of mutations first discovered in Brazil, South Africa, the UK and New York City have been detected.  The variants are more easily transmitted, but it is not believed they cause more serious illness. Vaccines have shown to be effective against most variants.

More people are getting sick 

After trending downward for weeks, New Jersey is seeing an increase in the number of positive COVID tests, hospitalizations and the rate of transmission.  The state now leads the nation in new COVID cases.  Governor Phil Murphy said during his COVID briefing last Friday he believed the state had "plateaued" in terms of new infections, but data released over the weekend tells a different tale.

The testing numbers have always been a bit skewed because the more you test, the more positive cases you will record. The number testing positive, however, had been dropping for many months. Over the last week, though, the number testing positive has increased 11%.

Hospitalizations have also been creeping up. They remain below 2,000 but just barely. The most disturbing metric to show steady increase is the rate of transmission. Anything over 1.0 indicates the outbreak is expanding. A month ago, New Jersey's Rt was holding below 1.0 and was among the lowest in the nation. It has been slowly creeping up and is now at 1.08. Every 100 infected people will infect 108 more, and the metrics increase exponentially from there.

Vaccination progress

The biggest reason to hope for a return to normal in the months ahead is New Jersey's progress in terms of vaccinations. New Jersey has administered 3,445,217 doses of the Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson vaccine. When the 2.3 million people who have received a first dose join the 1.2 million who are already fully vaccinated, New Jersey will be three-quarters of the way to fully vaccinating 4.7 million, or 70% of the adult population.

Those 2.3 million waiting for a second dose should have all received it my mid-April. That would put New Jersey on pace for widespread lifting of restrictions heading into the Labor Day holiday.

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