March 11, 2020

Possible COVID-19 Exposure in Princeton

By Donald Gilpin

As the coronavirus (COVID-19) continues to spread across the country, with increasing numbers of cases in New Jersey and the tri-state area, local officials on Tuesday reported a potential exposure to COVID-19 at a private party in Princeton and have initiated an investigation to identify any potential infections that may result.

Two people at the party had attended the Biogen Conference in Boston which has been linked to transmission of COVID-19. After their return to their homes in the Boston area, they tested positive for COVID-19.

The Princeton Health Department (PHD) believes there were approximately 30 people at the party, not all Princeton residents. PHD is contacting and investigating all of the Princeton residents who attended the party and is working with other local health jurisdictions where the other attendees live. Those in attendance are being asked to self-quarantine until assessment and any testing is completed.

The PHD investigation is preliminary, and PHD has announced that it will be updating the public as more information becomes available. According to a PHD March 10 press release, “The immediate risk to the general Princeton population remains low.”

The party attendees will first be interviewed, said Princeton Board of Health Chair George DiFerdinando. “If they warrant testing, we will test them. If they are positive, we will make sure they are quarantined so that these infections are contained.”

As Princeton moves from planning and preparation for COVID-19 to “an exposure situation in town” and a containment strategy, DiFerdinando suggested that residents, particularly older residents and those with health problems, limit group contacts to avoid “serious possible outcomes if you get infected.”

Two Princeton University staff members who were at the party are currently under self-quarantine, and, according to the University, they are being tested with results expected in the coming days.

A Princeton University March 10 press release states that the University is working with local health authorities to identify and contact those who may have been in close contact with the staff members since their potential exposure to COVID-19.

Princeton University announced Monday that it will move to virtual instruction beginning Monday, March 23 and decrease the number of gatherings on campus. Spring vacation at Princeton University begins this Friday, March 13. Students will be encouraged to stay home after the week-long break and complete academic requirements remotely. 

Proceeding on “the assumption that the virus will spread more broadly and eventually reach our campus,” Princeton University President Christopher Eisgruber wrote in his letter to the University community, “We will begin instituting a series of policies and practices this week based on the concept of social distancing,” with the goal being to minimize large group gatherings and extended periods of people in close proximity.

“To achieve this goal, we will virtualize any activities such as lectures, seminars, and precepts, that can be put online,” he went on. “We will continue to support, where possible and subject to appropriate restrictions, research, educational, and campus life activities that require physical presence.”

The policies will remain in place at least through Sunday, April 5, and will be reassessed in the meantime in light of ongoing developments.

Eisgruber emphasized “that these are extraordinary times that require exceptional measures to deal with a health risk that affects us all.” He acknowledged that these measures would cause “significant disruption and inconvenience to the campus community, but stated, “we strongly believe that actions taken now will have the greatest chance of decreasing risk, and that the potential consequences of not acting could far outweigh these short-term disruptions.”

As the University continues to develop its policies for meetings and events, including athletic contests and performances, it encourages the following social distancing techniques: keep at least six feet between yourself and another person in all public places; avoid close contact, including handshakes and hugging; and limit in-person meetings.

Princeton University event organizers are instructed to use remote technology whenever possible and to postpone or cancel events that involve more than 100 people.

University-sponsored international travel is prohibited, and all personal international travel is strongly discouraged. Non-essential University-sponsored domestic travel should be postponed or canceled.

At Princeton Public Schools (PPS), working in tandem with local health officials, plans are moving forward for the possibility of an extended school closure with students taught remotely and students who qualify for free and reduced lunch continuing to receive meals. 

“Currently in Princeton, our response measures include stringent and frequent cleaning of our buildings and buses; respiratory and hygiene education and practice; careful monitoring of daily attendance and of any staff or student illnesses; and social distancing in the form of greetings other than handshakes and hugs,” PPS Superintendent Steve Cochrane wrote in a letter to students, staff, and families.

The district will implement an early dismissal day on Monday, March 16 to give staff time to plan for possible closure and distance learning.

David Herman, infectious diseases committee chair at Penn Medicine Princeton Health, stated in an email on Tuesday, ”We remain confident that our clinical staff is well equipped to identify, isolate, and treat patients with COVID-19 while simultaneously helping to prevent exposure to others.”

Herman pointed out that leaders from Penn Medicine Princeton Health have been working for months on the coronavirus, closely monitoring the latest information and guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the New Jersey Department of Health (NJDOH), coordinating also with local, regional, and state health officials.

He added that individuals who are not sick, unless they are coming in for scheduled treatment or services, are encouraged not to visit the hospital.

“We are also trying to educate patients on the actions they should take if they believe they have been exposed to COVID-19. Those who are not sick should not go to the hospital to request testing. Those individuals should contact their local health officials.”

He recommended that individuals should seek guidance at the Penn Medicine Princeton Health website; at the CDC website; or at the NJDOH hotline at 800-222-1222, where health care professionals will answer callers’ coronavirus questions.