October 21, 2020

Heading Into Second Phase of Pandemic

By Donald Gilpin

With case numbers on the rise, winter weather and the holiday season approaching, and more activities taking place indoors, the COVID-19 pandemic is entering its second phase, says Princeton Health Officer Jeff Grosser.

The Princeton Health Department reported 18 active positive cases in town on Monday, October 19, a favorable number compared to other parts of the state and the nation at large, but nonetheless a significant increase in the past two months.  There have been 11 cases reported in the past seven days in Princeton and 19 over the past two weeks.

New Jersey health officials reported more than 1,000 new COVID-19 cases in the state on Tuesday, October 20, with the largest number linked to private indoor gatherings. New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy declined to announce any expansion of the 25 percent capacity restriction for restaurant dining.

“Winter with COVID-19 was anticipated to be a difficult one,” wrote Princeton Press and Media Communications Director Fred Williams in an October 20 email. “Our region and our county in particular have benefited from the low transmission rates achieved over the summer months, but winter will always be a time of year when infection rates for airborne viruses proliferate.”

Williams emphasized the importance of following established COVID-19 guidelines — mask-wearing, social distancing, hand washing, and opting for the outdoors — as cooler temperatures and lower humidity combine with increased travel, indoor family gatherings, and holiday social events to raise risk levels.

Grosser noted that early in the pandemic the incidence was highest among older adults, but since June, 18- to 29-year-olds have been the most infected demographic. This is also the age group that is most likely to have mild symptoms or be asymptomatic. “What is concerning about this age group is the fact that this group is more likely to continue to increase community transmission of COVID-19,” said Grosser. “We have seen these circumstances arise particularly with college/university students returning home and spreading COVID-19 through their household.”

Williams added, “During the holiday season and winter months it is especially important for this age group returning home from school or the military to self-quarantine before interacting with household family members and extended family and friends.”

He went on to point out that contact tracing has shown that social gatherings where safety guidelines are not closely followed have been much more problematic in causing increased cases and spread than in-school learning, workplaces, indoor dining, and shopping which adhere to established safety protocols.   

Princeton University

Meanwhile, Princeton University, also subject to the pandemic’s uncertainties, announced on October 19, “We are preparing for the possibility that we will be able to welcome back significantly more undergraduate students in the spring.” But the University will delay until the first week of December any final decisions about the spring semester.

“Though the early fall has gone well on this campus and for many of our peers, the next six weeks will provide additional, and crucial, information,” Princeton University President Christopher L. Eisgruber wrote in an email letter to the University community.  “Nobody expected September to be the hardest month. National infection rates have nevertheless risen to near-record levels; New Jersey’s rates are ticking upward; and challenges will likely increase as colder temperatures force people indoors, the flu season begins, and people gather for holiday celebrations.”

Princeton University has resumed some on-campus graduate instruction and research programs this fall, but the undergraduate teaching program for this semester has been almost entirely remote.  There are about 250 undergraduates in residence and any student, staff, or faculty member who is on campus for more than eight hours per week is required to participate in Princeton’s asymptomatic testing program, the results of which, according to Eisgruber, have been encouraging.

If more undergraduate students are welcomed back for the spring term, “residential life will, of course, be far more constrained than what existed before the pandemic began,” Eisgruber wrote.

PHS Phasing In

About 550 students returned to Princeton High School on Monday, October 19, the first time classes have been held in PHS since March. Principal Jessica Baxter said it all went well, with Cohort B students in the building this week and Cohort A due next week. About two-thirds of Princeton Public School (PPS) students have opted for hybrid schooling, with about one-third choosing to remain fully remote.

Princeton Unified Middle School (PUMS, formerly John Witherspoon Middle School) remains on a remote learning plan this week with the phase-in of hybrid learning delayed until next Monday, October 26, when Cohort A will be welcomed back in person.

Interim Superintendent Barry Galasso announced last Thursday, October 15, that referendum construction, including new HVAC units for classrooms, had been completed, but “in order to allow for cleaning and to provide our staff the opportunity to set up their classrooms,” in-person opening of PUMS would be delayed one week.

PPS announced that as of last week it had received 93 requests from staff to work from home because of concerns about the coronavirus. Through last Tuesday PPS had granted “work from home” assignments for 20 staff members, and an additional five teacher requests were approved but not used. PPS has created a form, Accommodation Reconsideration Medical Certification, available for staff members who request to work from home. Five requests for additional personal protective equipment (PPE) have all been approved.

The Monday, October 19 Princeton COVID-19 Update from Mayor Lempert and the Princeton Council noted the rise in cases in Princeton and advised, “Especially as the cooler weather pulls more of us back inside, we have to remain extra-vigilant. It is more important than ever to take precautions to limit your exposure to the virus so we can work together to contain its spread.”

Grosser added a more specific warning, “Given the role of asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic transmission, all persons, including young adults, should take extra precautions to avoid transmission to family and community members who are older or who have underlying medical conditions. This is particularly true with Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, and New Year’s holidays all within the next 8-10 weeks.”

He continued, “Strict adherence to community mitigation strategies and personal preventive behaviors by younger adults is needed to help reduce their risk for infection and minimize subsequent transmission of SARS-CoV-2 to persons at higher risk for severe COVID-19.”