Coronavirus: Two more cases in N.J. — and discussion of a health emergency

Closing schools and businesses, shutting down trains and buses? State officials aren’t ready to do that

By Tom Bergeron
New Jersey | Mar 8, 2020 at 5:39 pm

Here’s what we know about the growing — and rapidly changing — coronavirus situation in the state:

  • Two more presumptive cases, both involving North Jersey males, are being sent to the CDC for final confirmation. This means there are six known cases in the state as of 2 p.m. Sunday;
  • Twenty-seven people (from nine counties, including central and south counties) are under investigation — which means they are being tested.
  • State officials in health and the governor’s office are constantly evaluating the situation to determine if a public health emergency needs to be declared (one never has been in state history).

So, as workers return to work Monday morning and students return to school, the state is urging caution and precautionary measures, but has not determined when or if it might take a higher step of action.

And while state officials said they have been in continual contact with many business leaders, they do not have any specific suggestions set up other than the guidelines they distributed March 2, which are standard guidelines for preventing the spread of disease.

The possibilities moving forward? That’s where it gets tricky.

A portion of a media conference call to update the situation involved discussion of more drastic preventative measures: Such as closing schools, businesses, public gathering spaces – such as movie theaters — and even NJ Transit trains and buses.

Health commissioner Judith Persichilli, who chairs the task force on coronavirus for Gov. Phil Murphy, as well as Matt Platkin, the governor’s chief counsel, indicated state officials have discussed all options — including a health emergency — but would not speculate on the likelihood of that occurring.

Perischilli said determining what criteria would need to be met was still under discussion. And while the state is investigating cases in nine counties, she said the state does not have what she called a ‘community spread’ or an intensive outbreak in one area.

“Right now, given the dispersion of the (people under investigation), we have sporadic spread,” she said. “We haven’t seen significant community spread in one area where we would say, like Westchester (County, N.Y.), that there’s an outbreak or cluster. We haven’t seen pockets of community spread through the state. When you see pockets of community spread, you have to be more vigilant toward the mitigation strategy and looking at things like school closures, business (closing), mass gatherings, things like that.”

Perischilli added community spread is not essential for her group to ask for a health emergency. In fact, she said the examples of it throughout the state could be a sign that more restrictions are needed, too.

“Community spread is just one criteria we would use, but there’s others,” she said. “The reason for me to share where we are seeing persons under investigation – from North Jersey to South Jersey — starts getting us thinking that there will be more, and it will be throughout the whole state. We might not see one community spread, but we might see so much activity within the state that it is another criteria that we would use.

“We have discussed, do we take a more aggressive (approach) when it’s in 21 counties out of 21 or when it’s in half or three-quarters of the counties? There are no hard and fast rules. But epidemiologists would tell us that they will know when it’s time to move to the next phase of this particular situation because things follow a regular path.”

As of Sunday afternoon, 27 patients were being investigated for coronavirus in nine counties: Bergen (9), Camden (1), Cumberland (3), Essex (4), Hunterdon (2), Middlesex (2), Monmouth (4), Sussex (1) and Union (3).

The two latest presumptive positives include a male, 70, from Teaneck, who is being treated at St. Joseph’s Health in Paterson, and a male, 32, from Hudson County who is being treated at Hackensack University Medical Center.

Platkin said declaring a health emergency may not be needed simply because the governor already may have the power he needs to handle the situation.

“It’s important to remember that a state of emergency is not necessary in many instances to take the preemptive actions (being) talking about,” Platkin said. “Every state has its own unique set of laws with respect to emergency powers and authority the health commissioner (and) the governor has. And we’ve obviously been using broad powers to date, starting with the governor standing up the task force over a month ago, to take the very preventative actions (being) talking about. And with respect specifically to schools, we don’t need a state of emergency for schools to close.”

Platkin said a declaration may only come if needed.

“The real question is, when do we need that authority to do things that we can’t currently do?” he said. “That hasn’t been the case yet. It’s obviously in active discussion, and soon as it is the case, the governor will take action.”

Leaders of business groups around the state said they — like everyone else — are monitoring the situation and are referring members to the governor’s recommendations.

Christina Renna, the head of the Chamber of Commerce of South Jersey, said her group is letting the governor’s office take the lead.

“We’ve been hesitant to put out individual guidance and instead are allowing the administration to dictate how best to direct our members,” she said. “If the state gives guidance that we need to encourage members to work from home than we plan to mirror that messaging, but as of the last call that is still not the case.

“I think the state is doing a good job of keeping everyone informed.”