Health commissioner: No signs of community spread, no reason to ban public gatherings … yet

New Jersey officials announced the state’s first death from COVID-19 Tuesday afternoon and four new cases — including two in previously empty Burlington County. But state Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli said she still hasn’t seen any evidence of what she fears most: community spread of the disease.

Until that occurs, Persichilli speculated that she will not recommend more stringent mitigation practices as the head of the governor’s task force on the matter.

“We have to focus on community spread,” she said at the daily media briefing. “We do not see, particularly in New Jersey right now, what we call community spread — which is person-to-person transmission without a known COVID-19 exposure.

“When we start seeing community spread, there is no doubt that we will be exercising more vigilance in our recommendations for closures, travel, mass transit. But, in New Jersey, we’re not there yet.”

Because of that, the banning or limiting of large public gatherings is not likely at this time, she said.

“It’s always in front of our mind, but we’re not in a position right now to recommend discontinuation of mass gatherings,” she said. “We just continue to put out the alert that if you’re elderly, if you’re frail, if you’re compromised, if you’re vulnerable in any way, stay home.”

What other stringent mandates would come with community spread is not clear. Persichilli said the Tuesday morning meeting of the task force showed how many different concerns there are with each individual state commissioner.

She noted four examples:

  • Health: May need permission to add beds to a hospital should an outbreak occur;
  • Corrections: May need to limit outside visitors;
  • Human Services: May need to figure out a plan for the department’s thousands of workers who travel the state and make one-on-one visits, often to those most vulnerable to the virus;
  • Education: May need to close schools — or mandate home instruction via the internet.

Because of this, Persichilli said she has asked each department to prepare waivers that potentially could be needed. And she said the task force may add smaller group meetings.

“What we found this morning is (things are) a little bit different in all departments,” she said. “So, we’re getting all those concerns and issues into my office and then we will be meeting with those smaller groups so we can get more specificity over the criteria we are going to use over time.”

Many of these more extreme mitigation steps may only be necessary if community spread causes a greater outbreak. At this point, Persichilli said she expects more cases, but does not necessarily expect community spread.

“I don’t expect community spread to occur,” she said. “I hope with containment and mitigation it doesn’t, but what I do expect is more cases. You may have more cases, but it might not necessarily be qualified as community spread.”

In order to combat community spread, Persichilli recommended social distancing of at least 6 feet. But even she admitted that is not practical in many situations.

“The 6 feet is the guideline,” she said. “But when you’re on a (public transportation), I don’t know how you can keep 6 feet away.”

A look at some of the other issues that came up:

  • On canceling St. Patrick’s Day parades: “There’s no recommendation to cancel your St. Patrick’s Day parade,” Persichilli said. “Our concern is more for the gathering before the parade and certainly the gathering and parties after the parade. We feel very strongly that people who are frail, not feeling well, immunized-depressed, vulnerable in any way should not go.”
  • On students staying home from school: “We’re getting absolutely no reports of increased absenteeism, generally or as a result of COVID-19,” she said. “Today at the task force, we are setting up a subcommittee to look at all levels of education, because some of the decisions some local colleges and universities are making — to go to all online teaching, for instance. They are not based on increased absenteeism. They are based on individual school policy and decisions.”
  • On getting a flu shot: “We’re still in peak season here in New Jersey, so it’s not too late to get that flu vaccine and that will take one load off of your mind,” state epidemiologist Christina Tan said. “It will help protect you against one of the viruses that’s definitely circulating here in New Jersey. The issue of co-infection, we don’t have information about that at this time.” Persichilli agreed: “I think it’s safe to say that anything effects your immune system and lowers it opens you up to more vulnerability to COVID-19,” she said.
  • On combating price gouging: “The state of emergency kicks in the strongest anti-price gauging statutes, which set hard caps on how much prices can increase,” Murphy’s chief counsel, Matt Platkin, said. Excessive price increases are defined as price increases that are more than 10% higher than the price at which merchandise was sold during the normal course of business prior to the state of emergency.
  • On requiring those under self-quarantine to stay quarantined: “It’s a recommendation,” Persichilli said. “With these emergency declarations, it could go into an order. We know that the Attorney General’s Office, Mr. Platkin and our legal counsel are working on that. We have had no one that we know of that has broken quarantine.”
  • On not having enough tests: “The testing kit situation, which is well known in the press and talked about a lot, has not affected our ability to test persons under investigation right now,” Persichilli said. “If it becomes a significant surge, we certainly might have a problem, but I think we could do a couple of hundred, if not more, tests right now and as you know we have about 30 in the queue to be tested.”