December 16, 2020

Vaccines Arrive; New Cases Continue to Rise

By Donald Gilpin

The first COVID-19 vaccine doses in New Jersey were administered on Tuesday, December 15, to frontline health care workers at University Hospital in Newark. Other hospitals and health care facilities across the state began vaccinating frontline health care workers throughout the day.

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy has announced that the first batch of 76,000 Pfizer vaccines will go to health care workers and to residents and workers at long-term care facilities. An additional 86,000 vaccines from Pfizer are scheduled for delivery to New Jersey next week, and the Moderna vaccine is expected to arrive around December 22. The Pfizer vaccine received approval from federal health authorities last Friday, December 11.

In the second of four phases of vaccine distribution, after health care workers and long-term care facilities workers and residents, doses will go to other essential workers and first responders, followed by people over 65 and people with underlying health conditions. The last phase will be the general population.

“If all goes as expected,” said Princeton Press and Media Communications Director Fred Williams, “the timeline should take us into late spring, early summer.” Distribution plans for Princeton and the surrounding area are being coordinated with the county and other municipal officials, he added, and more details will be available when these plans are finalized.

In the midst of the second wave of the pandemic, infection rates in Princeton and throughout the state continued to rise. The Princeton Health Department on Monday, December 14, reported a record 59 new cases in the previous 14 days, its highest two-week total, surpassing the previous high of 55 cases registered last month. There were 29 new cases in the previous seven days, fewer than the highest seven-day total of 35 cases reported between November 18 and 24.

“The Princeton community has seen this second wave really take off in late October through the present day,” Princeton Health Officer Jeff Grosser wrote in an email.  “We all keep hearing about a ‘Thanksgiving surge,’ but in reality these cases have been on their way up at an increasing rate since before the holiday. We expect this to continue over the next 4-5 weeks with the worst caseloads coming in January.”

He continued, “The most important thing residents can do right now is to evaluate their own health for symptoms, avoid large gatherings, and work through the final phase of this ‘pre-vaccine’ pandemic era.” 

Princeton’s coronavirus update from the mayor and Princeton Council on Monday, December 14, also warned residents to protect themselves in advance of getting a vaccine. “Your best protection from COVID-19 will be a combination of getting a COVID-19 vaccine, wearing a mask, staying at least six feet away from others, avoiding crowds, and washing your hands often,” the newsletter stated. “No one tool alone is going to stop the pandemic.”

Williams noted that cases from Thanksgiving holiday infections would continue to appear and another spike could be anticipated in mid-January in the wake of multiple holiday celebrations.

“The Princeton community has benefited from a generally high compliance to COVID-19 safety standards,” Williams wrote in an email. “This compliance is reflected in Princeton’s infections remaining at or near the lowest in Mercer County, even though infections have risen statewide.”

Long-term care centers have been more effective in combating the virus in this second wave, Grosser noted, and he attributed that relative success to protective measures put in place last spring.  “Long-term care centers in Princeton have reported five new cases during this surge,” he said, “but, due to increased infection control measures, those cases have been quickly identified and isolated before further spread.”

Princeton Public Schools (PPS) announced on December 11 that it would be going back to all-remote learning, with this Friday, December 18, the last day of hybrid learning until Tuesday, January 12, 2021.

“Our coronavirus numbers remain low and we want to keep them that way,” Interim Superintendent Barry Galasso wrote to PPS staff and parents. “Having extra days to isolate and/or quarantine as necessary gives us a better chance of moving through January with healthy students and staff.”

Galasso went on to express hope of getting students back into the classrooms on a regular basis early in 2021. “Our remote program gets stronger every day,” he wrote, “but for the vast majority of our students, learning happens best in person and in a classroom.”

Praising the PPS teachers for their hard work and courage throughout the pandemic, Galasso reflected on the role of education. “There has been much talk of divisiveness in this country,” he said. “I believe that education is one of the best tools we have to protect our country, our society, and our future. I want to thank the educators and all of our community members who have been staunch supporters of our schools and students. Education truly is a light in the darkness.”

As the state begins to implement its vaccination program, the Princeton Senior Resource Center will be hosting a 1 p.m. virtual town hall today, December 16, with Princeton Board of Health Chair Dr. George DiFerdinando leading a discussion on vaccines and vaccination and the COVID-19 vaccination plan in New Jersey.