NJ officials expect the big COVID-19 surge in just weeks — 1,982 new cases Friday
The surge is coming.
There will be a point, and it's soon, when New Jersey hospitals are swarmed by novel coronavirus patients, New Jersey officials say. But in a press briefing Friday, state Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli gave perhaps the clearest indication yet of when she and other state officials expect that to be.
"With limited info, our expectation is that by mid-April we will be seeing an increasing demand in critical care beds," Persichilli said.
In other words, that's (tentatively) the point when this gets worse before it gets better.
And, again, with limited information, she said a ramping-up New Jersey healthcare system should have enough critical care beds by then to deal with the demand. That's with every New Jersey hospital being asked to double its capacity for critical care quickly — to about 2,000 beds statewide — and four FEMA-backed temporary field hospitals expected to open over the next several weeks. The first should be at the Meadowlands Convention Center in Secaucus, close to the hard-hit counties of Bergen and Hudson — perhaps by next Friday, state officials say.
"Ventilators are another story," Persichilli said. She said state authorities have asked for federal help getting up to about 2,300 ventilators, more than double what the state currently has on hand.
A bioethics committee is forming to give guidance on what happens if the state falls short — to decide who gets potentially life-saving ventilator care if there simply aren't enough devices to go around.
"We believe right now we have enough ventilators," Persichilli said. But she stressed "we will push that," and said the state needs hundreds in reserve past its anticipated patient load.
The numbers state officials are discussing change quickly, and have since novel coronavirus cases started growing rapidly in New Jersey — from a first known case March 4, to a few more each day, to dozens more each day, and now hundreds or thousands.
Friday saw New Jersey register 1,982 new positive tests, for a statewide total of 8,825. That's at least in part due to significantly increased testing capacity — how much is due to more widespread testing and how much is due to more widespread infection is hard to know.
The death toll has climbed by another 27, to 108.
"We mourn with these families and indeed with our entire state every precious life that has been lost," Gov. Phil Murphy said.
There are a lot of "ifs" when it comes to New Jersey's projections — an issue that's acutely inherent in a novel disease, with no track record.
New cases are reported daily, but testing is only done on symptomatic individuals, and the state can only do so many tests at a time. Murphy has stressed repeatedly testing the symptomatic gives the state the most useful information it can have with a limited number of tests available.
Under orders from the governor, New Jersey has been getting stricter and stricter about enforcing social distancing policies. What started nearly two weeks ago as a curfew for most retail businesses eventually became an order for any deemed "non-essential" to close entirely. What was once a prohibition on gatherings of more than 50 people became a prohibition on gatherings of any kind.
"We really shut the garage door six days ago," Murphy said. That's when he ordered most retail closed, and all businesses to send home as many workers are possible.
But there's lag time in getting coronavirus test results back — Persichilli put it at about a week for current patients. So far, state officials don't know just what effect all that social distancing is having.
Persichilli said there are some things we do know. To date, 24,843 tests have been conducted in New Jersey. Of those, 8,296 have come back positive — about a 33 percent positive rate (the number is presumed to be much lower among all coronavirus cases, with many of them never getting tested or diagnosed). Persichilli said 1,080 hospital patients have tested positive, and another 1,872 are awaiting results.
The main concern for health care providers is what happens to hospital resources during the coming surge. The vast majority of people with coronavirus recover — but health officials have said some portion, maybe 15 to 20 percent, require hospitalization. If there aren't enough beds, ventilators or protective equipment to go around, care would be compromised for both coronavirus patients and others — potentially severely.
"Right now we are really relying on those at the bedside to help us understand the needs of the patients," Persichilli said.
States have been grappling with a shortage of resources, competing for purchases and pleading with federal authorities for more help. But Friday, Murphy pointed to private partners he said were stepping up, as he and Persichilli sounded an optimistic tone about readiness:
Apple, Merck and UBS have provided masks for healthcare workers, he said. Johnson & Johnson has kicked in 10,000 pairs of goggles for healthcare workers. Goldman Sachs, Murphy's former employer, has provided another 80,000 N95 masks toward a total tonation of about 175,000.
He said businesses are "scouring their systems to see if they can find ventilators," but right now, no New Jersey businesses seem to be making them.
The governor also said the state is dispersing $140 million to health care providers to help fight the virus.
State officials stressed several times their timetables are fluid, based on information coming in daily.
"I don't see any scenario where this doesn't bleed meaningfully into May," Murphy said.