Is it time to reopen? No

Murphy’s facing pressure, but not from hospital leaders … they see what’s going on and appreciate his cautious take — all of us should

By Tom Bergeron
Trenton | May 6, 2020 at 5:29 am
Editor’s Desk

It was a good rant by the governor. It lasted more than two minutes. It ended with a heavy exhale. And it showed just how much pressure Phil Murphy is under to reopen the economy.

“I know there are some folks out there who think that this is some recipe out of a cookbook, that there’s some magic wand,” he started.

There isn’t. There’s just a pent-up demand. Folks who got their wish to open parks and golf courses are pushing for more: beaches, non-essential retail. The works. They see how other states are reopening and they want the same.

Murphy, however, has to deal with reality. One where even the White House and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are predicting the country likely will have more than 100,000 dead — spurred by potentially more than 3,000 a day in June.

That’s why he is hesitant.

“Just remember, if you’re one of the folks out there — as I am — itching to get things back open again, 385 people entered the hospital (Monday) in New Jersey with COVID-19,” he said. “Please God, most of them — I hope all of them —get out of there, but, sadly, the data tells us they won’t.

“So, with all due respect, on Memorial Day weekend (and) I’m sorry about schools being remote for the rest of the year (and) I’m sorry we can’t give you more definitive guidance yet on things that we’re working on.”

He kept going.

“By the way, non-essential retail, I hear morning, noon and night. I appreciate all that. I appreciate all the inputs and the wisdom on beaches. We still have people getting sick, going to the hospital and, sadly, over 300 today we’re reporting have died.”

That’s why we are nowhere near the time to reopen.

The early results from Georgia, Tennessee and Texas — which had far few cases than New Jersey — should be reason enough. They’ve seen their numbers double, according to some reports.

Numbers, however, are New Jersey’s biggest problem.

They are getting better. The number of people in hospitals (5,328) is approximately 3,000 fewer than just a few weeks ago. There has been a weekly decline of those on ventilators, too, but Tuesday’s number was still well over 1,000, at 1,169.

File photos
Brian Gragnolati, from left, Bob Garrett and Barry Ostrowsky, three of the state’s most prominent health care leaders.

Atlantic Health CEO Brian Gragnolati said people need to see the enormity of those numbers. He does. Not only when he looks at those in his system, but when he talks to CEOs of hospitals out of the area, as he does in his leadership capacity with the American Hospital Association.

“We always talk about our experiences here in New Jersey,” he said. “People are always stunned at levels of activity. In some instances, we’ve taken care of more patients at Atlantic than they have total patients with COVID-19 in their state. I think we forget that we have been in this incredible surge of activity, and we kind of lose sight of that.

“At our peak, we were taking care of almost 900 patients in our hospitals on any given day. We just dipped under 500. That’s a pretty big drop, but it’s still 500 patients. That’s a lot.”

Hackensack Meridian Health CEO Bob Garrett shares the concern.

“I think we have to be very cautious,” he said. “Even though the numbers are down, we’re still seeing a significant number of COVID-19 patients, a significant number of patients being really sick and critical care and on ventilators. And we’re still seeing people dying.

“The overall trends are more positive, but we have to be careful as we kind of put our foot on the gas in terms of reopening. I understand the need to reopen, because we need to get our economy back, but we have to do it very safely.”

That means staying shut longer. Non-essential retail can wait. Seriously, how much business would it really attract?

Listen to those on the front line: Gragnolati, Garrett and RWJBarnabas Health CEO Barry Ostrowsky all praised Murphy for his cautious approach. They are not clamoring for quick reopenings.

Ostrowsky, who made headlines when he was one of the earliest proponents of locking down the state, said he is willing to be patient on the reopening. It’s the advice he offers whenever he is asked.

“I serve on the Department of Health Professional Advisory Committee, and what we are expecting Gov. Murphy to do is to reopen at the appropriate pace, understanding the continuing challenge of COVID-19,” he said.

Garrett, whose system has handled more cases than any other in the state, understands what reopening too quickly could mean to his hospitals.

“No matter how safely you do it, there are going to be more cases,” he said. “That’s inevitable. We just have to make sure that we can manage those cases and that it’s just a small number.

“You can’t say that there’s going to be zero cases. Countries around the world with far fewer cases are still seeing cases. I think we’re going to have to live in that dual world for some time. It’s going to be a question of getting the timing right and doing it safely.”

That balance concerns Gragnolati.

“That’s really the trick,” he said. “How much do you release on the controls that have been put in place to allow the economy to reengage — but, at the same time, making sure that you’re following the science so that we don’t end up really back in the soup. We threaded a needle here in New Jersey, and it’s not over yet. Our numbers are still enormous in this state. It just feels like a lot less because it was so big at its core.”

That concerns Mike Maron, the CEO at Holy Name Medical Center in Teaneck, essentially the epicenter of the outbreak in the state.

“At the height of this, we were swabbing between 170 to 200 people a day — and then many of them ended up being admitted or being held in the ER for further evaluation for stabilization,” he said. “We’re still saying 40 to 50 a day, so it hasn’t gone away.

What it tells you is that the virus is still very active in the community. And the only reason it’s not 200 is because of all the lockdowns and the shutdowns.”

That’s what he wants to tell those who want to open things up quickly.

“This is a dangerous Russian roulette with people’s lives over the herd immunity theory,” he said. “I can tell you that that’s fine when it’s people you don’t know or you’re not on the front line caring for them, but if it’s your family, and they end up on a ventilator and you see what that condition is like, they’re going to think twice about how the herd immunity mindset.”

Therein lies the issue.

The average citizen doesn’t see what hospital execs see on a daily basis — and what they are predicting for the fall, when most think a second wave is coming.

Gragnolati is glad Murphy does.

“I have to thank the governor for staying true to science and working through this in a thoughtful and iterative way,” he said. “Because we’re not out of the woods here, and we have to be ready for what happens this fall.”

Murphy, meanwhile, is being pressured about what will happen on Memorial Day. Which takes us back to his rant.

“We are considering data, we’re considering perspectives, we’re trying to learn from other places around the country and the world,” he continued. “We’re taking the best advice we can from medical experts. We’re trying to make every decision based on the data, the science and the facts.

“Nobody is itching more to get this state back up and running than yours truly and the team up here, but we have to do it right. We have got to do it responsibly, we got to do it safely and we are committed to that, frankly, whether you like that or not.”

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