Holiday Travel May Exacerbate Rise in Cases
By Donald Gilpin
COVID-19 case numbers are rising in Princeton and in every county in the state, and New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy has tightened restrictions on restaurants, bars, and interstate youth sports.
Murphy announced Monday, November 9, that bars and restaurants must stop indoor service by 10 p.m., and barside seating at bars will be banned, beginning November 12. Also, Murphy announced that all interstate games and tournaments for indoor youth sports, up to and including high school, are prohibited.
The Princeton Health Department reported on Monday that the weekly total of 16 new cases and biweekly case count of 23 are the highest weekly and biweekly totals for Princeton since early May, the height of case counts in town. There were 13 active positive cases in Princeton on Tuesday of this week.
“Princeton is officially in its next peak of cases or second surge,” Princeton Press and Media Communications Director Fred Williams wrote in an email. “The governor’s actions are steps in the right direction. The goal is to gain and maintain compliance with COVID-19 mitigation measures and not be forced to shut things down.”
He continued, “We’re beginning to see cases popping up tied to Halloween parties and other social gatherings as well. Cases are also stemming from club/travel sports and occupational exposures, which are then leading to household exposures. As we near Thanksgiving, Princeton must continue to abide by public health guidance, which flattened the curve in the first place. Scaling back means we can continue to move our economy and live our lives during what is traditionally a big quarter for business and a time of goodwill socializing during the holiday season.”
In looking ahead to students’ Thanksgiving holiday travel plans, the Princeton Board of Health (PBOH) has issued guidance on whether students should travel at all, and if they do, how they can do it most safely.
In Tuesday’s New York Times, Dr. A. David Paltiel, Yale School of Public Health professor of health policy and management, warned that students returning home from college could pose significant risk to families and communities.
“There’s a responsibility not to unleash little ticking time bombs,” Paltiel said, as quoted in the Times, pointing out that asymptomatic students can be dangerous spreaders of the virus. He pointed out that colleges differed widely on plans and policies for students and travel over Thanksgiving.
The American College Health Association (ACHA), representing college health officers, has not called for mandatory testing, but has recommended that schools urge students to get tested before heading home, that students not travel if they test positive, and that they quarantine for 14 days when they get home.
The PBOH states that “the safest way to avoid family transmission associated with returning students is to encourage students to avoid travel and remain at school, and to have a virtual Thanksgiving event with family members instead.”
If the student has decided to travel, the PBOH recommends “know before you go,” with a COVID test before leaving campus and another test after arriving at home. “A negative test is not a license to end other preventative measures such as mask wearing and physical distancing,” the PBOH notes.
The PBOH also advises that, two weeks prior to departure, students should get an influenza vaccination and review regulations concerning travel to their destination, as well as reducing the number of people they have close contact with and minimize the risks of exposure during the time before departure from campus.
Day-of-travel advice recommends private transportation, and, if with others outside the household, wearing a mask, sitting in the back seat if someone else is driving, and opening the windows, if possible. PBOH also advises reducing the number of stops on the trip, delaying travel if sick or exposed, taking safety precautions — mask, social distancing, hand sanitizer — particularly if using public transportation.
On arrival at home, the PBOH recommends quarantining for the first 14 days, including eating meals in a private space or outdoors, with family at least six feet apart, using separate serving ware and a separate bathroom, avoiding physical contact, wearing a mask, social distancing, considering placing HEPA filter units in the home, and opening windows.
Further guidance on travel and quarantining during COVID-19 is available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (cdc.gov/coronavirus) and the ACHA (acha.org).
On a positive note, Princeton Public Schools reported significant progress on its hybrid, phase-in plan for balancing safety concerns with the goal of returning students to in-person learning as soon as possible. Princeton High School reported 353 students in school on Tuesday, Princeton Unified Middle School about 249, Community Park 123, Johnson Park 110, Littlebrook 107, and Riverside 125.
Pointing out the rising number of COVID-19 cases in Princeton, Williams went on to highlight the COVID Safety Pledge recently issued by the Princeton Board of Health. He quoted Board of Health Chairman Dr. George DeFerdinando.
“With the Pledge and the follow-up guidance, the Board is trying to do three things,” DiFerdinando said. “First recognize the great work all the members of the Princeton community have done to help mitigate the effect of the novel coronavirus in our town. While there have been tragic losses in Princeton to be sure, the response of all members of Princeton has had a real impact in limiting the virus’ toll.”
DiFerdiando continued, “Second, we’re hoping to remind ourselves of the basics we’ve been practicing and put them into a concise form. Outside better than inside, physical distance, avoid crowds, maintain personal hygiene, and the use of facial coverings/mask — this is what we’ve been doing and must continue to do.
“Third, we’ll need to reorient those basics to deal with the coming cold weather, flu season, return of college students, and holiday season. While the five basics still work, we all have to think about how they apply when we can’t do the ‘outdoor better than indoor’ and we have the possibility of travelers/family members retiring home.”
DiFerdinando called on the Princeton community to share the Pledge with family, friends, and co-workers and “to keep the faith and encourage each other.”
Responding to concerns voiced by Murphy in his recent press conference, Williams said, “It’s also good the governor mentioned message fatigue because, while people are tired of the COVID safety messaging, being tired of it doesn’t mean it’s unnecessary or that COVID is not a problem.”
He went on, “The problem here is that our 70 degree November weather is not going to last, and the current spike in cases is likely to be exacerbated by the confluence of traditional holiday gatherings and cold weather keeping us indoors.”
Noting the recurring pattern in every cold and flu season, Williams warned of the addition of COVID-19 to the mix. “Thanksgiving Eve is usually the most heavily traveled day of the year, and from now until January 1 we will see cultural and religious celebrations result in many public and private celebratory gatherings.” Williams reemphasized the importance of following COVID-19 safety guidelines in the coming weeks and months.