COVID-19 Coronavirus: What New Jersey Needs to Know (UPDATED)
With concerns about the COVID-19 coronavirus outpacing even the spread of the potentially deadly disease, it's important New Jerseyans be able to separate truth from fiction and have critical information available quickly.
With that in mind, we offer the following guide.
Has the COVID-19 coronavirus reached New Jersey?
Tuesday, March 4, officials identified the state's first "presumptive positive" case of novel coronavirus, also known as COVID-19 — pending confirmation by further tests from the Centers for Disease Control. Several people evaluated prior to that tested negative for the virus.
In the days following, officials identified several more presumptive positive cases. As of March 11, the count was at 23.
Tuesday, March 10, state officials announced New Jersey's first COVID-19 death, a male in his 60s from Bergen County.
“We are sad to report the first death in a case of COVID-19 in New Jersey. Our prayers are with the family during this difficult time. We remain vigilant to doing all we can — across all levels of government — to protect the people of New Jersey," Gov. Phil Murphy said in a statement.
The man who died had a history of other medical problems, officials said. He had no history of international travel, but did have a history of travel to and from New York, which has seen several cases.
Is New Jersey under a state of emergency?
It is. Gov. Phil Murphy made the declaration Monday, March 9.
The declaration does not, in itself, close any schools or offices, nor does it put travel restrictions into effect. Broadly, it makes state resources available more quickly and waives certain procurement procedures. Officials say it also gives them more power to crack down on price gouging.
As of March 11, President Donald Trump has not declared a national disaster, which could unlock certain funds. He has, however, suspended all travel to and from Europe.
Where can I get more information quickly?
In addition to this guide, check SoJO's ongoing coverage of the COVID-19 coronavirus. Our sister station, New Jersey 101.5 is maintaining a list of closings and schedule adjustments here.
The state Department of Health has also put together a guide to the disease, sometimes called COVID-19, the new coronavirus or the novel cornovirus, to distinguish it from other forms of coronavirus The state also runs a hotline at 800-222-1222.
What happens if New Jersey schools have to close?
Some have, though mostly to give staff time to plan ahead in case COVID-19 hits their districts. Some schools had closures planned the second week of March to minimize the chance of student exposure.
But New Jersey law requires schools to be open 180 days per year to receive state funds. Under updated state guidance, schools can plan home instruction days that will count toward the 180-day requirement if they're doing so under written instruction from a local health officer or the state Department of Health. The directive also asks schools to make sure they're offering equitable access to learning to all students.
Red Bank Regional High School began offering online instruction Thursday, March 12 — a move announced March 11, the same day state health officials said a teen from Little Silver had tested positive. Little Silver is one of the towns served by the regional school district. Officials had previously said a 27-year-old from Little Silver with a sibling in the school tested positive.
Several colleges announced closures or restrictions during the second week of March. Princeton restricted large gatherings and urged students not to return after spring break, but instead to use online learning. Monmouth University started its spring break early after a student reported flu-like symptoms. Rowan extended its own spring break.
What are the symptoms of coronavirus? How dangerous is it?
Information on coronavirus is still developing quickly, as scientists worldwide continue to study it and the outbreak that began in 2019.
COVID-19, the infection associated with the outbreak, arose from the area of Wuhan, China in December, New Jersey notes in its own resource guide. It has since spread to several other countries, with 89,000 people diagnosed worldwide and 3,000 deaths reported as of Monday.
Comparatively few of those are in the United States, though health officials warn that could change quickly. As of March 3, there were several dozen confirmed cases in the U.S., and two deaths, according to the CDC. Cases had been reported in 10 states.
For most patients, COVID-19 presents as a respiratory illness, with symptoms similar to that of a cold or flu: fever, cough and shortness of breath.
In mid-February, the CDC said the mortality rate for the coronavirus was 2.3 percent — meaning most infected people will recover, though it's deadlier than the typical flu.
What should I do if I think I may have COVID-19 coronavirus?
Contact your health provider immediately — but call ahead. Even if you don't have the new coronavirus, you may have another respiratory infection that needs treatment. If after a screening you're thought to be potentially infected with the virus, you'll get tested.
New Jersey can now test for the disease itself, and hospital systems are working on tests as well — which should mean quicker results.
Will I have to pay for testing?
Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey announced Friday, March 6 it would pay all fees for COVID-19 testing. It also waived prior authorization requirements for visits to primary care and urgent care doctos for patients who have symptoms that could indicate coronavirus, as well as prior authorization requirements for diagnostic tests consistent with CDC guidance.
Aetna announced in early March that for 90 days, it will will offer zero co-pay telemedicine visits, as well as 90-day maintenance medication prescriptions for insured and Medicare members. It waived early refill limits on 30-day prescription maintenance medications for all members with pharmacy benefits administered through CVS Caremark. It will also waive co-pays for all diagnostic testing related to COVID-19.
Gov. Phil Murphy on March 10 issued a directive making it possible for those who get their health insurance coverage through the state and public schools to be tested for COVID-19 at no cost.
Does New Jersey have enough tests?
On Monday, March 9, New Jersey health officials said they have two testing kits capable of testing up to 500 people, and were expecting a third. Though officials in some states have complained of shortages, New Jersey officials instead said it's important to be judicious with testing, because tests of asymptomatic people that return negative results may lead to a false sense of security
How does coronavirus spread?
The first infections in China were linked to a live animal market, but the virus is now spreading person to person, like many respiratory diseases, according to the CDC.
"The virus that causes COVID-19 seems to be spreading easily and sustainably in the community (“community spread”) in some affected geographic areas," the CDC states in its resource guide. "Community spread means people have been infected with the virus in an area, including some who are not sure how or where they became infected."
You're more likely to get it after travel to a country that's seen a significant outbreak, or after contact with someone known to have COVID-19, though it has begun spreading more broadly in some communities and is expected to continue to do so.
Should I avoid people from certain countries?
The CDC stresses most people in the U.S. have little immediate risk of exposure to COVID-19.
"Fear and anxiety can lead to social stigma towards Chinese or other Asian Americans. Stigma and discrimination can occur when people associate an infectious disease, such as COVID-19, with a population or nationality, even though not everyone in that population or from that region is specifically at risk for the disease (for example, Chinese-Americans and other Asian-Americans living in the United States)," it says in its resource guide.
People who have not been in areas associated with the spread of the disease, or in contact with those who have, regardless of their ethnic origin or heritage, do not pose a greater risk of spreading the disease than anyone else.
The CDC also stresses people who have returned from areas with an oingoing spread of COVID-19, but who've been back for more than 14 days without symptoms, are not infected and contact with them will not give you the virus.
Should I take extra precautions on NJ Transit, other mass transit or planes?
Broadly, health officials advise the same precautions as they do in any other situation where you may come into contact with people carrying the virus: Practice good hygiene.
NJ Transit officials have said the agency has protocols and procedures "for the cleaning and, if needed, disinfection" of its buses, trains and facilities, which are cleaned daily.
It also said it will "enhance current cleaning procedures" to augment its daily current practices" with additional disinfection regimens on its rail, bus, light rail and Access Link using bleach/water mixes and other disinfectant sprays and liquids. And it said it would enhance its procedures further if a person who'd used NJ Transit was found to have COVID-19.
The MTA in New York City has stepped up its cleaning procedures as well.
According to the World Health Organization, there is little risk of any communicable disease being transmitted on board an aircraft because of the recirculated air inside the cabin of a plane. There's slightly higher risk when seated near someone who's sick, or when a flight attendant having contact with many people is sick, as there is in any situation where an ill person is having contact with others.
The state Department of Health said that passengers in a train or bus may be at greater risk because they are in close contact with people for extended periods of time. Health officials also warn that cruise ship passengers can be at elevated risk of communicable diseases because of their close contact over prolonged periods.
The virus can also by spread by touching contaminated surfaces, though it isn't thought to be the main mode of transmission. Health officials advise washing hands often with soap and water, or using hand sanitizer when soap and water aren't available. They advise avoiding touching your eyes, nose or mouth with unwashed hands.
What areas have seen the most spread of the disease?
The CDC maintains an updated list of areas that have seen widespread or sustained COVID-19 transmission. As of early March, it was recommending travelers avoid all non-essential travel to China, Iran, South Korea and Italy.
It also recommended older adults and those with chronic medical conditions avoid Japan, and said travelers should practice "usual precautions" in Hong Kong.
How else can I avoid getting coronavirus, or spreading it to anyone else?
It sounds simple, but wash your hands — thoroughly and often.
The CDC also recommends practices similar to those used to avoid any respiratory illness:
- Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.
- Stay home when you are sick.
- Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash.
Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces using a regular household cleaning spray or wipe.
- Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after going to the bathroom; before eating; and after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing. If soap and water are not readily available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol. Always wash hands with soap and water if hands are visibly dirty.
Should I get a facemask? Hand sanitizer? I hear they're selling out at many stores.
According to the CDC, facemasks aren't helpful for most people to protect themselves from diseases, including COVID-19.
However, it said people who show symptoms of the disease should use facemasks to help prevent transmission to others, as should certain healthcare workers.
Hand santizer is advised for situations where soap and water aren't readily available.
State officials say they're cracking down on price-gouging they're seeing because of coronavirus concerns.
What else should I do to prepare?
This list from Homeland Security gives advice on supplies to keep handy during any kind of pandemic or major outbreak.
Is New Jersey ready if there's an outbreak here?
A report by Trust for America's Health examined 10 key health security indicators and gave states a high, middle or low rating.
“New Jersey ranked well, very well, for the second year in a row New Jersey was among 25 states in the high performance tiers, so you have a high level of readiness to deal with public health emergencies," a spokesperson told New Jersey 101.5.
That doesn't guarantee there won't be spread of the virus here. But the report found New Jersey was prepared to borrow resources as needed from other states. It found room for improvement in the way the state communicates emergency resources to lower-income populations.
How has the virus affected New Jersey so far?
Mostly, through acts taken out of caution.
For instance, Trenton cancelled its Chinese (Lunar) New Year celebration for 2020. City officials said many who had planned to take part in the event were traveling from mainland China, where health concerns have spurred travel restrictions. Expect to see other event cancellations and adjustments as officials and organizers proceed with caution. In another case, stepped-up precautions cancelled a couple's wedding aboard a cruise ship.
Several schools have closed briefly to make plans in case the virus hits their communities. Some colleges have taken precautionary steps as well. Princeton is urging students not to return after spring break and instead to take lessons remotely. New Jersey 101.5 is maintaining a list of closings and schedule adjustments here.
Among the notable event changes this week: Several area St. Patrick's Day parades are canceled, including South Amboy's, Morristown's and Philadelphia's.
Newark Liberty International Airport was also added to the list of ports of entries with stepped-up passenger screenings for the virus.
Should New Jersey expect more cases?
Cases have grown throughout March. No one knows where coronavirus will spread next, or how much more severe the outbreak will get. So don't panic — but also, be vigilant.
Health officials stress most of the precautions they recommend are the same ones they suggest for warding off more common ailments, like the flu — and it's been a nasty flu season, with some health systems seeing about double the cases they did last year.
What does this mean for the economy?
No one knows yet. Many trade shows have been canceled to avoid a mass of international travelers in one place, and some supply lines have been affected. Stock markets have tumbled in recent weeks.
Ken Kamen, president of Mercer County-based Mercadien Asset Management, told New Jersey 101.5 fear is key here, "but I would caution people (not ) to get too excited at the moment, because we don't really know the long- term causes of this disease."
He said caution makes sense — for instance, it might be wise to move some money out of stocks and into the bank — but said not to panic about the recent drop in the stock market connected to coronavirus.
-- Also includes reporting by Dan Alexander, Sergio Bichao, Dino Flammia, Michael Symons and Erin Vogt