February 3, 2021

COVID Stats Improving; Concern Grows Over Virus Variants, 3rd Wave

By Donald Gilpin

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy announced on Tuesday, February 2 that hospitalizations from COVID-19 remained below 3,000, at 2,892, down 25 percent from a recent high on December 22. He added that New Jersey had administered 825,000 vaccines so far, though the states’ six mega-sites and many other vaccine sites were closed Monday and Tuesday because of the snowstorm, with appointments being rescheduled.

Meanwhile the Princeton Health Department reported on Monday the signs of a flattening curve, with only eight new COVID cases in Princeton in the previous seven days and 12 in the previous 14 days. Those numbers are down significantly from mid-December highs of 39 in one seven-day period and 66 in a 14-day timespan.

Princeton Board of Health (PBOH) Chair Dr. Meredith J. Hodach Avalos was happy to see the improved data, but warned of formidable challenges ahead. “Cases are starting to downtrend and hospitalizations are also downtrending, which is good,” she said. “But it is not the time to let up on any measures that we’ve been using all along to control the virus.”

Noting widespread concerns about variant strains of the virus, she continued, “The variants are more transmissible and we don’t know how effective the vaccines will be against them. We need to continue to be very vigilant and meticulous about following the guidance about masking, maintaining distance, staying home, and getting tested when sick or if you’ve  been in contact with someone who’s sick.”

In a February 2 phone interview, she pointed out that the curve had come down before and then had gone back up, “So there’s a lot of concern that another wave is coming. We just can’t let our guard down right now. There’s also a lot of virus circulating in the community. Even though it’s on a downtrend, there are plenty of cases out there.”

Avalos, who became PBOH chair last month when she and former chair Dr. George DiFerdinando switched positions and he became PBOH vice chair, commented on the vaccine rollout and frustrations caused by the limited supply of doses.

“We’re happy that people are eager to get it,” she said. “The more people who get it the better. We can’t forget that there are many people out there who are hesitant. Anything we can do to message people who are hesitant, to help them to feel comfortable that it’s safe, effective and the right thing to do. Ultimately it’s going to be important to get enough people vaccinated to end the pandemic.”

Avalos went on to express hope that vaccine supplies would increase. “Right now we’re focusing on getting the limited vaccines out to people in the top priority groups,” she said. “But there also needs to be a focus on equity and equitable distribution of the vaccines.  There should be more emphasis on equity. There’s a consensus that we haven’t done a great job so far. Data from the state show that there have been inequities in who’s getting the vaccine, so my feeling is that we need to do more. I’m hopeful that equity will be emphasized more in the future.”

Avalos did not see an end to the pandemic in the near future. “We’ll be dealing with COVID for a while going forward,” she said. “We still have a lot of work ahead of us in dealing with this pandemic, which is far from over, and then there are challenges that will be meeting us in the recovery phase — fallouts from the pandemic, like other health conditions people are struggling with and economic hardships.”

Last Thursday, January 28, Princeton Public Schools Interim Superintendent Barry Galasso sent a letter to Gov. Murphy, urging him to expedite COVID vaccinations for New Jersey teachers. “In this district we feel strongly that a delay in protecting teachers results in a further reliance on remote instruction, something we all hope to minimize,” Galasso said.

Calling for teachers to ”receive the priority they deserve in the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines,” Galasso wrote, “It is urgent that we vaccinate educators quickly and stabilize the classroom environment.”

He went on to cite an “ongoing student mental health crisis,” noting that “in Princeton there are indications that the mental health of all our youngsters will continue to deteriorate as long as uncertainty, remote instruction, and frequent quarantines prevail.” 

Emphasizing that “our teachers and staff are frontline workers, and their efforts contribute not only to the health of New Jersey’s economy but to the future of every child in this state,” he added, “This is the most serious threat to education and the well-being of our children I have seen in my career.”

On Monday, February 1, the Princeton University Alumni Office announced that this year’s Reunions would not take place on campus but would be held as a virtual event in May. “We will miss the opportunity to gather in person as Princetonians, but have determined that convening on campus for even a modified celebration with guests from around the world is not prudent or possible this spring,” the alumni office wrote in an email to all alumni.

The University also announced that it would not be hosting a postponed commencement ceremony for the 2020 graduating class as it had hoped to do. “We are working with the class to find ways to honor their achievements and foster a strong sense of community with each other and the University,” the announcement stated.

Princeton University has not yet made a decision about its 2021 commencement and related end-of-year activities for this year’s graduating class.

New Jersey state and local officials continue to recommend that all residents who are eligible for a vaccine — those over 65, smokers, anyone from 16 to 64 with a qualifying medical condition, and health care personnel, long-term care residents and staff, and first responders — find and register for a COVID vaccine by pre-registering on the New Jersey vaccine registration portal at covidvaccine.nj.gov or by phone at (855) 568-0545; by directly contacting NJ COVID-19 vaccine sites, listed at covidvaccine.nj.gov; or by signing up on the Princeton COVID-19 Vaccination/Screening Tool at princetonnj.gov.