Gov. Phil Murphy is extending the state’s public health emergency for the 13th consecutive month as the state tries to ramp up its vaccine ability and grapples with the presence of several highly infectious COVID-19 variants.
The order, Murphy said, has to be renewed every 30 days in order to keep in place the litany of public health restrictions, and reallocate public health resources towards the pandemic. A state of emergency has been in place for the entirety of the pandemic.
Murphy first enacted the public health emergency on March 9 last year, as the COVID-19 pandemic began to take hold across the state. Since then, the governor practically shut down and then slowly reopened the state, by allowing businesses, schools and public gatherings to take place with mask requirements and reduced capacity.
“Today’s actions mean we continue our ongoing COVID-19 mitigation efforts while also vaccinating New Jersey residents as quickly and as safely as possible,” the governor said at a daily COVID-19 press briefing on March 17.
A lapse in the public health emergency would hit the state Health Department’s “ability to regulate the distribution of the vaccine,” which as of March 17 had been administered to over 3.1 million people.
That includes over 1 million second Pfizer and Moderna doses, and an unknown amount of the one-shot Johnson & Johnson doses. The goal is to vaccinate 70% of eligible state adults – 4.7 million people – by June.
“The faster we can get most New Jersey residents vaccinated, the faster we can end this pandemic and get back to normal,” the governor said.
Restrictions are loosening in the coming days. On March 19th indoor dining and other indoor businesses can increase operations from 35% to 50% indoor capacity.
But the spread of several highly infectious new variants – including one first detected in the United Kingdom, and another first detected in Brazil – threaten to reserve some of the state’s gains Murphy’s said those variants have paused him from pursuing more aggressive reopenings.
Murphy said that the expectation is that the rate of transmission – or how fast the virus spreads – will steadily increase in the coming days. That was 1.05 as of March 17, going up from 1.03 the day before.
The state reported 3,590 new cases on March 17 and 38 new fatalities. The seven-day average was 3,145 positive cases, which was up 12% from both a week and a month ago.
Hospitalizations have plateaued at around 1,900 for the past 10 days, after trailing down from a mid-January peak of more than 3,700 COVID-19 patients.
“We’ve got to watch this like a hawk to make sure this does not break out and up from” that range, the governor said.