New Jersey aims to double its COVID-19 testing capacity to close to 20,000 people a day by the end of May as officials weigh the decision to relax monthslong restrictions and reopen the economy, Gov. Phil Murphy announced Tuesday.
The state also plans to recruit at least 1,000 more contact tracers and pay them to track the movements of people known to be infected with the novel coronavirus, as part of the strategy to limit the spread of a disease that has killed more than 9,500 people here.
Murphy has repeatedly stressed high-level principles that would guide his reopening plans, and they include widespread testing, comprehensive tracking of those who came into contact with the virus, and isolating the infected. But Tuesday was the first time the governor publicly revealed initial concrete steps to reach specific numerical goals.
“[We want] to give everybody out there and everybody watching the confidence that we have got the infrastructure in place so that as we begin to reopen the state, they know we’re on it, that we can spot community spread or a flare-up with very short notice,” Murphy said. “That you feel good about jumping in and taking us up on that opening.”
Despite making strides in these goals and seeing fewer people hospitalized since New Jersey’s peak in mid-April, the state currently has the most coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths in the entire country when adjusting for population. This ranking is fresh in Murphy’s mind as he weighs decisions to reopen nonessential businesses or give guidance on beaches.
“We lead the nation,” Murphy said. “So to all those who say willy-nilly, the Nostradamuses out there who think they can predict the future, and that we can open this place up wide and we can be carefree and get back to some semblance of where we were a couple of months ago, I want you to commit that chart to memory.”
Here’s what we learned about the system New Jersey hopes to have in place to more accurately map the spread of the virus:
How close is NJ to its testing goal?
As of now, New Jersey conducts an average of 10,000 tests a day and receives results back in around 2½ days. The state has so far tested around 4% of its population, limited primarily to people showing symptoms of the coronavirus, including coughing, a fever and difficulty breathing.
Murphy wants to reach a minimum of 20,000 tests a day by May 31, and 25,000 tests a day by the end of June. The Harvard Global Institute recommended that New Jersey test about 75,000 people a day.
“More testing will mean more people will know their health status, and that means more peace of mind,” Murphy said. “And more testing creates more data, and more data allows us to take more steps forward.”
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Does that mean I can get tested for the coronavirus even if I don’t have symptoms?
Murphy wants to prioritize widely testing high-risk vulnerable populations first, like the elderly in nursing homes, then the front-line population, including health care workers or essential workers, and then the general population.
But there are already some testing locations among the 135 public and private sites where people without symptoms can go, such as two FEMA-run sites at Bergen Community College in Paramus and PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel.
Rite Aid also launched 14 free coronavirus test sites for people with or without symptoms. The locations will use self-swab nasal tests overseen by Rite Aid pharmacists and sent to BioReference Laboratories. New Jersey residents can sign up for an appointment at riteaid.com and must have a government-issued ID.
By the end of the month, CVS Pharmacy plans to have swab tests available at 50 of its stores.
The Department of Health will also issue an order to allow access to testing to those without a prescription or a primary care practitioner.
Certain municipalities, such as Jersey City and Bergenfield, have opened up testing to all residents. For more information about where you can get tested, visit covid19.nj.gov/testing.
When will all long-term care residents and staffers be tested?
The Department of Health is requiring all long-term care facilities test all residents and staff by May 26, and to complete follow-up testing a week later. Close to half of all New Jersey deaths associated with the coronavirus occurred in long-term care facilities.
Facilities will be required to give the state updated outbreak prevention plans by May 19 and address how they will test everyone, how often, and when staff can return to work if they test positive.
So far, only 16 facilities in southern New Jersey have tested all staff and residents, in a partnership with Cooper University Hospital. This week, 76 additional facilities will test all staff and residents, said state Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli.
How else is the state expanding testing?
New Jersey plans to increase testing in Elizabeth, Trenton, Camden, Paterson, Atlantic City and Newark and use an unnamed vendor to quickly pass on the resources these cities need.
The state will give more than $6 million in federal aid to Rutgers to allow the university to produce more than its current 10,000 saliva tests a day to a “multiple of that per day,” in the next six to eight weeks, Murphy said.
The state will open up mobile testing sites and others in churches, synagogues, temples and mosques, Murphy said.
New Jersey will keep pushing for more supplies from the federal government, which last week committed to send the state 550,000 test kits and 750,000 swabs, Murphy said.
New Jersey’s psychiatric hospitals aim to test all residents by May 22, Persichilli said. All residents in developmental centers have been tested. The state plans to test all seasonal workers, but did not specify a deadline for that goal.
What is contract tracing and why is it important?
Since New Jersey doesn’t have the infrastructure or supplies to test its entire population, health officials need to prioritize who is likeliest to have caught the virus.
A patchwork of close to 100 local health departments has been reaching out to New Jerseyans who may have been close to people with the virus, such as family members or co-workers.
But these agencies have seen their staffs and funding drastically cut since the Great Recession. Murphy estimated that New Jersey has between 800 and 900 tracers and said it has a goal to add at least 1,000 more people doing this work.
In the past, Persichilli said New Jersey should have between 15 and 81 people per 100,000 residents, or 1,300 to 7,000 contact tracers.
Where will New Jersey find more contact tracers?
New Jersey is looking for residents to apply to become a volunteer or full-time worker making around $25 an hour, Murphy said. Visit covid19.nj.gov/tracer to apply.
The state is looking for people who are multilingual, “culturally competent” or sensitive to people of different backgrounds and cultures and can build trust with those they would interview.
Rutgers School of Public Health will also stand up a contact tracing workforce and sign an agreement with the state.
Murphy said he wanted a mix of boots on the ground and technology. How does technology factor into contact tracing?
New Jersey is still looking for a company to help with hiring and onboarding new tracers.
Murphy also signed an executive order to make sure local health departments are using the same information platform to record tracing information, and will contract with Dimagi and use its CommCare platform. Dimagi launched its application almost two months ago.
It is unclear why this data was not centralized and uniformly reported months into the epidemic.
How is New Jersey paying for this?
Murphy said these measures will cost “hundreds of millions of dollars … every six months” and that “federal funds are essential.”
What if my roommate or family member has COVID-19 and I don’t have space to safely stay away?
The third prong of Murphy’s plan, to isolate people with the virus in order to further stop its spread to family members or roommates, is unclear.
Persichilli mentioned that seasonal workers who test positive will be able to quarantine in the field medical station at the Salem Medical Center.
Murphy said he would go into more detail in the next few days.
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