Princeton Attempts to Slow Pandemic Spread
By Donald Gilpin
COVID-19 cases in Princeton continued to surge to record high numbers during the past week, as holiday festivities wound down and residents, some in person and some virtually, returned to work or school.
The Princeton Health Department on December 30 reported its highest new case numbers ever, with 161 positive cases for the previous seven days and 246 for the previous 14 days.
Princeton Deputy Administrator for Health and Community Services Jeff Grosser said that COVID-19 infections in Princeton have nearly tripled in daily, weekly, and biweekly case counts, pointing out a “similar trajectory to the rest of the region and state at this point in time.”
“Although we have gotten used to things changing through the course of the pandemic, we have not seen an increase in cases at this pace or in this magnitude,” he added.
New Jersey is reporting record high COVID-19 cases and test positivity rates. Emergency department visits and hospitalizations for COVID-like illness are also increasing, Grosser said. According to the most recent reports, three New Jersey regions (Northwest, Northeast, and Central East) have “very high” COVID-19 activity levels, and Mercer County (part of the Central West region with Somerset and Hunterdon counties) remains at a “high” activity level.
Grosser pointed out the origins of the current wave and explained the health department’s focus on older vulnerable residents. “This is essentially a two-variant surge from Delta to Omicron,” he said. “Combined with major holidays and colder weather pushing people indoors more hours of the day, the increase in cases is not necessarily a surprise, but the sheer number of positive cases is.”
He continued, “Our focus in recent weeks has been looking at severe cases of COVID, particularly in our over 60-year-old population. Understanding that our 60-plus population (specifically our 80-year and older population) has been impacted most significantly, we are working tirelessly to get boosters out to anyone in
that age demographic who is still in need. We’re also working with our congregate living sites serving Princeton’s older residents to ensure they have the support they need to keep their facility free from outbreaks.”
Princeton Health Department efforts in the first days of the new year have included adding vaccination and booster clinics and supporting the growing demand for COVID-19 tests.
Due to staff shortages, Princeton High School students are learning remotely, not coming into the building, this week. Through Tuesday, however, for the first two school days of the new year, Princeton Public Schools (PPS) have kept the other five schools open for in-person learning, with an absence rate — all absences, not just COVID-19-related absences — of 22 percent.
An online petition, initiated by PHS senior Harmonie Ramsden, calling for PPS to offer virtual or hybrid options “for students who want to stay safe in their learning amid a raging pandemic,” had gathered more than 500 signatures by early in the week.
Nutri-Serve, the food service provider for PPS, is short-staffed because of COVID-19 ailments. It continues to serve breakfast and lunch for students, but menu options are limited and parents have been urged to pack a lunch for students if possible.
PPS Superintendent of Schools Carol Kelley noted that being in school is safer than being out of school. “We are not seeing in-school transmission of the virus,” she said.
“Our district is doing everything possible to keep our schools open for in-person learning,” she continued. “Sometimes it can be a hard decision to make, and people might assume that this year mirrors last year. That is not the case. We have a number of mitigation strategies in place, including vaccinations, that we did not have last year. I do not want people to underestimate the cost of being out of school.”
Pointing out that cases spiked after Thanksgiving and winter breaks, Kelley added, “The data we are seeing indicates that keeping students out of schools is not the most effective way to control COVID spread. At the same time having students out of school exacerbates the mental health crisis being experienced by students across the nation.”
Kelley went on to thank anonymous donors who recently purchased 880 high-quality KN95 masks for PPS, which will be distributed to students and staff who need them. Kelley pointed out that the combination of vaccinations; masking with KN95, N95, or surgical masks; and physical distancing have served the district well.
Kelley praised the community for “following the science” and urged parents to continue to follow the protocols for isolating students who test positive. The five-day quarantine guidelines recently recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have not been approved for schools, and, according to Grosser, the CDC and New Jersey Department of Health are currently working on updated guidance on quarantine/isolation times for K-12 schools, which should be coming out soon.
PPS Director of Student Services Micki Crisafulli emphasized that students who have tested positive for COVID-19 must isolate for the full 10 days. “It’s really crucial that parents do not send a COVID-positive student back to school after five days,” she said.
Kelley reiterated the importance of both keeping the community safe and keeping students in school. “I know our students and our parents are concerned about the Omicron variant and increased transmissibility, and I am glad they are taking every precaution,” said Kelley. “But at the same time, it’s good to know that our schools are safe and that students are safer in school than out of school. I would like to see a world where there is as much coverage of student mental health as there is of the omicron variant. Keeping our students in school for in-person learning, with proper protocols in place, is the best way to keep them safe.”
In assessing the rise in COVID case numbers, Princeton University announced last week that the return of undergraduates to campus following winter break would be postponed a week until January 14, and once on campus students would be prohibited from traveling outside Mercer County and Plainsboro except under “extraordinary circumstances.” January 24 remains the first day of spring semester classes, and all students must receive booster shots by January 31.
Rutgers University announced on Tuesday, January 4 that it would be moving all classes to remote until January 31, with all students required to be vaccinated with booster shots by that date.
Mercer County and the New Jersey Department of Health are offering free COVID-19 testing at CURE Insurance Arena, Gate B, 81 Hamilton Avenue, Trenton, no appointment necessary, on Wednesday, January 5, Thursday, January 6, and Friday, January 7, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. COVID-19 testing is also available at many other locations throughout the state. See covid19.nj.gov.
Free at-home, saliva COVID-19 test kits are available, courtesy of the NJDOH and Vault Medical Services. Visit learn.vaulthealth.com/nj for further information.
The Princeton Health Department is offering local clinics on Thursdays, January 6, 20 and February 3 and 17 at the Princeton Senior Resource Center, 45 Stockton Street, from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. and on Thursday, January 27 at La Mexicana, 150 Witherspoon Street from 5 to 8 p.m.
Princeton University will continue to host Pfizer vaccination clinics at Jadwin Gym on Wednesdays, January 5, 12 to 6 p.m. and January 12 and 19, 12 to 4 p.m.; and Moderna clinics on Thursdays, January 13 and 20 from 12 to 4 p.m.
In addition Mercer County, in partnership with Capital health and Penn Medicine Princeton Health, has announced a number of vaccination clinics in different Mercer County locations in the coming month. See mercercounty.org. The state of New Jersey has also opened two COVID-19 vaccine mega sites at Bridgewater Commons in Somerset County and at Mount Laurel, Burlington County. Appointments made through the New Jersey Vaccine Appointment Finder at covid19.nj.gov are recommended for all sites.