August 5, 2020

Reopening on Pause, as Princeton Looks Ahead

By Donald Gilpin

“We are not going to be safe against COVID-19 until a vaccine or suitable treatment is available for our population,” warned Princeton Public Health Officer Jeff Grosser earlier this week. With case numbers increasing, Grosser criticized breaches of rules on social gatherings, along with inadequate support for public health systems and failures of many other states to apply lessons learned from the early outbreaks and epidemiological evidence.

Though Grosser noted the progress made locally, he remained less than optimistic. “Princeton has done a tremendous job of moving restaurant dining outside, preparing workplaces for safe business, masking up while outside, preparing our public employees for work amidst a pandemic, etc.,” he said. “The unfortunate certainty of this virus is that it is not just going to go away. All members of our town must act like a cohesive team to root out this virus, which includes holding everyone accountable for the negative and positive effects of our actions.”

The Princeton Health Department on Monday reported four new cases in the past seven days, nine in the past two weeks, with 16 active cases, 207 total positive cases, 160 recovered with isolation completed, 18 COVID-related deaths, and 12 additional probable COVID-related deaths.

Acknowledging that more cases of COVID-19 will appear as state restrictions are lifted, Grosser  expressed growing concern with the high percentage of new Princeton infections, which have been attributed, through contact tracing, to social gatherings. “Through spot checks on portions of town, we know that residents are abiding by public health executive directives, but it’s far too common to find out that new infections are the result of a lack of compliance,” he said.

Grosser pointed out that failure to follow social distancing guidelines and lack of facial coverings, particularly at social gatherings, have sparked a number of recent cases.  The Health Department continues to emphasize the importance of social distancing and masks.

The Princeton Health Department’s “mask ambassador” was on the job on Nassau Street on Saturday afternoon, August 1, handing out about 200 free face masks. Of the 246 people who passed in front of the Princeton Garden Theatre between 3 and 3:30 p.m., 211 (85.77 percent) were wearing a mask. Between 4:30 and 5 p.m. on Saturday, 229 people passed with 149 (65.07 percent) wearing a mask. 

Princeton Press and Media Communications Officer Fred Williams noted that many of the people not wearing masks were in groups of people, family, or friends, and others had taken their masks off while consuming a recently-purchased drink.  The next mask distribution date will be August 11, possibly in Palmer Square.

Public Health Shortcomings

Grosser discussed the status of public health nationally and the impact of public health failures on the local pandemic response. “Public health infrastructure in the United States and New Jersey needs help,” he wrote in an email Tuesday. “New Jersey public health ran into this pandemic unprepared due to lack of funding and resources from minute one. Local public health was asked to assist hospitals and long-term care facilities with facility management, which has never been an expertise or requirement of our department.”

Grosser went on to cite the inability of state and federal government to provide personal protective equipment, along with local shortages of staff in the face of increasing numbers of COVID-19 patients overwhelming the local health departments in April and May.

“With every step forward, we have been taking a few steps backwards,” Grosser said. He pointed out that now his department is working to assist businesses, schools, and other community facilities with the reopening process, but state guidance is lacking and his department does not have enough staff  to consult effectively with these groups on their return-to-operations plans.

Public health funding nationally and in New Jersey has been “depleted to the point that many local health departments are shells of what they once were,” he added, but noted that in Princeton, the mayor, Council, and municipal administration have identified these deficiencies and enlisted a full-time public health nurse whose primary job is to oversee communicable disease outbreaks in Princeton. “We are very fortunate in Princeton, but in other places where cases are surging and contact tracing just isn’t getting done, those communities have a long way to go,” Grosser said.

School Reopenings

The Princeton Health Department has been meeting with heads of schools and their leadership teams to discuss what return to school might look like following the recent COVID-19 surge.  “Presently, what holds many districts back in New Jersey is what to do with a symptomatic student/staff member or a positive COVID-19 case,” Grosser said.

He continued, “What hinders the decision-making here is the fact that many testing laboratories are backlogged five to seven days or more. So essentially, before there is any clear scientific evidence on COVID-19 in a classroom, we must wait a week or more to find out what is happening.” He noted the added challenges of cases in more than one school, sibling exposure, and coordination of a responsible outbreak response.

Governor’s Response

As coronavirus case numbers and transmission rates rose this week to the highest level in months, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy put reopening plans on pause Monday in the middle of stage two, announcing that limits on indoor gatherings would be scaled back from 100 to 25, with some exceptions for weddings, funerals, religious, and political events. Indoor house parties, Murphy noted, had created a number of COVID outbreaks in the state.

Gyms, movie theaters, bars, and restaurants (indoors) remain closed, and 34 states are now under quarantine with people visiting or returning from those states asked to quarantine for 14 days.  The state health commissioner has expressed particular concern about an increase in cases among 18- to 29-year-olds.

“The focus of the leadership within the municipality is on rate of transmission, the safe reopening of our schools, and public compliance with COVID-19 safety measures,” Williams stated on Monday.  “Our local businesses have benefited from the re-tooling of our downtown area to support outdoor dining and curbside pick-up for shoppers, and our residents have had access to the Community Park Pool and other recreational programs through the efforts of our recreation department and high compliance with required safety measures.”

Noting the signage around town encouraging compliance with COVID safety measures, Williams emphasized, “Compliance is key,” and he added, “The end of summer is now shifting our focus towards traditional end-of-summer activities like Labor Day getaways and events.”

In looking ahead in the ongoing battle, Grosser reflected, ”What is going to get Princeton through this pandemic is exactly what has conquered previous historical crises: innovative thinking, community cohesion, and the understanding that no individual or institution is larger than the cause.”