December 2, 2020

Second COVID Wave, Holiday Spike Threaten

By Donald Gilpin

Princeton, the state of New Jersey, and the whole country continue to battle the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, as residents and health officials await news of possible  post-Thanksgiving outbreaks and brace for additional challenges in the upcoming holiday season.

The Princeton Health Department on Monday, November 30, reported 58 new cases of COVID-19 in Princeton in the past two weeks, surpassing the previous record 14-day total of 55 cases for November 11-24.  For the past week, 30 new cases were reported.

“We are going to see a jump in the number of cases this week through next week,” said Princeton Health Officer Jeff Grosser. “In fact we already are, and so is the rest of New Jersey. This is going to be a result of both the holiday and test reporting being delayed, but also a result of the increased travel and person-to-person exposure during Thanksgiving.”

Princeton Press and Media Communications Director Fred Williams added, “The overall impact on our infection rate may not be fully apparent until mid-December,” but he went on to express optimism that New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy’s recent tightening of restrictions on outdoor gatherings and suspension of high school ad club sports might mitigate the spread over the next month.

Grosser continued, “We are urging the public to continue to closely monitor the symptoms and avoid large gatherings, especially in the 10-14 days after the Thanksgiving holiday.”

Princeton health officials continue to divide their time between contact tracing and preparing to distribute the initial doses of COVID-19 vaccines. The Princeton Health Department has been notified that the first deliveries of the Pfizer vaccine will be directly distributed to health care facilities at the end of December, according to Grosser, who anticipates that the general population will have access to the vaccine in the first or second quarter of 2021.

The local health department has been working with state health officials in compiling educational materials on the vaccines to distribute in the coming months. “It is going to be extremely important to lay out all of the facts for residents so they can
make an informed decision on the COVID-19 vaccine,” said Grosser.

In his Monday report, Murphy announced that outdoor gatherings, previously set at 500, then restricted two weeks ago to 150, would be limited to 25 people as of Monday, December 7.  All indoor youth and adult sports practices and competitions are banned from Saturday, December 5 through January 2, with exceptions only for collegiate-level and professional sports teams, Murphy said.

Religious or political activities, which are protected under the First Amendment, and funerals, memorial services, and wedding ceremonies are exempt from the restrictions on gatherings. Murphy urged New Jersey residents to “keep gatherings as small as possible.”

Princeton Public Schools, which decided to go remote in taking a week off this week from its phased-in hybrid plan, is anticipating a full return to hybrid, partially in-person learning beginning December 7.

Interim Superintendent Barry Galasso will be meeting with Princeton Health Department officials and the schools’ medical team in the next few days to assess the latest update on hospitalizations, transmission rates, and local COVID cases.

He acknowledged concerns, but stated, “As of right now we’re planning to open next week, December 7. The whole country has COVID fatigue. The fact that it’s the holiday season and people aren’t free to make plans with family and friends is adding stress. The emotional distress is there for the faculty and the kids too.”

Grosser and Williams both noted that the return of Princeton University students to the campus in February, as announced last week, would present challenges, but University and town officials have continued to communicate and work together to mitigate those risks.  “The safety of town residents and the students, staff, and faculty of the University are all being considered,” said Williams.

“University officials are planning extensive testing of students, staff, and faculty, which will be necessary to monitor COVID status on campus,” Grosser pointed out. “The health department participates in weekly calls with the University to discuss updates on the pandemic response as well as strategic planning for the months ahead, including the return of students and eventual receipt of a COVID-19 vaccine.”

Williams reminded the community, “The municipality of Princeton, mayor, mayor-elect, and our Princeton council members all are urging Princetonians to remain diligent in their individual efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19. Those individual efforts in maintaining compliance with COVID-19 safety measures have a collective impact on our community.”