January 26, 2022

Local and NJ Cases Continue Decline in Pandemic’s Third Year

By Donald Gilpin

The recent COVID-19 surge continues to decline sharply in Princeton and throughout the state. The Princeton Health Department on January 24 reported 126 new cases of COVID-19 in Princeton over the previous seven days, down more than 50 percent from the highest ever seven-day total of 287, recorded just two weeks earlier on January 10.

Cases for the previous 14 days totaled 313 on Monday, also down significantly from the record two-week total of 568 for December 28, 2021 to January 10, 2022.

Princeton’s declining numbers are reflected throughout the state, as New Jersey on Tuesday, January 25, reported a seven-day average for new cases down 47 percent from a week ago. COVID-19-related deaths in New Jersey, with deaths following weeks after a surge in cases, continued to rise to a total of 1,892 so far for the month of January, but hospitalizations continued to decline, down 33 percent from a January 11 peak.

The COVID-19 transmission rate for New Jersey on Monday, January 24, fell to 0.64, down from 0.68 Sunday and well below the recent high of 1.92 on January 1. A rate below 1 indicates that the virus is in decline with each case leading to fewer than one additional case.   

Local public officials expressed some optimism in seeing the case numbers dropping, as the Omicron variant, which accounts for almost all of the current infections, is generally proving less severe than previous variants, and more people are gaining immunity from past infection and from vaccines. The Princeton vaccination rate is about 87 percent for residents age 5 and over, with 62 percent of those 18 and older having also received booster shots.

In a January 24 phone conversation, Dr. Meredith Hodach Avalos, internal medical specialist at Penn Medicine Princeton Medical Center and vice chair of the Princeton Board of Health (PBOH), was cautiously optimistic but not willing to speculate on the future of the unpredictable coronavirus.

“It’s encouraging for sure to see the numbers going down, to see declining cases from the incredibly high numbers we had a few weeks ago,” said Avalos. “But it’s important for us to recognize that there’s still a lot of disease circulating in the community.”

She continued, “My big advice is for people who are at higher risk of severe disease or hospitalization to continue to take precautions. Also I would highlight the importance of booster doses for people who are eligible. We’re seeing more and more data come out showing that booster doses are really important to lowering risk further from COVID.”

Avalos suggested that there would probably be more variants. “Viruses do mutate,’ she said, but she pointed out that other countries that have faced the Omicron variant have seen rapidly declining rates of infection, and she was hopeful that the infection rates would continue to decrease here. She warned, however, “I think we’ve learned that making bold predictions in the face of this virus is difficult to do with any accuracy.”

The “campus risk status” at Princeton University remained “high” for the week of January 15-21 with 162 positive cases reported on the University’s COVID-19 Dashboard, but the positivity rate of 1.58 percent was down significantly from the previous week’s 2.91 percent and 5.65 for the week before that. 

Princeton Public Schools’ COVID-19 numbers were also down sharply with a total of 39 cases in all six schools reported for the week ending January 21, as opposed to 79 for the week before that, and 96 for the week ending January 7.

A Princeton Health Department COVID-19 testing site is now open at the former Princeton First Aid and Rescue Squad building at 237 North Harrison Street. Operated by Ridgewood Diagnostic Center, the site is open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Registration is at testnj.online. Walk-ins are accepted, but appointments are strongly encouraged.

Mercer County and the New Jersey Department of Health are offering free testing at the CURE Insurance Arena, Gate C, 81 Hamilton Avenue, Trenton from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Wednesday, January 26; Thursday, January 27; and Friday, January 28. No appointment is necessary.

For at-home testing, free rapid tests, limit four per household, are available at covidtests.gov. PCR test kits can also be ordered from learn.vaulthealth.com/nj.

The Princeton Health Department will be holding COVID-19 vaccine clinics on Thursday, January 27, at La Mexicana, 150 Witherspoon Street, from 5 to 8 p.m.; and on Thursdays February 3 and 17 at the Princeton Senior Resource Center, 45 Stockton Street, from 10 a.m. to noon.

Princeton University will be hosting a Moderna COVID-19 vaccination clinic on Friday, January 28, 12 to 4 p.m., and a Pfizer clinic on Monday, January 31, from 3 to 7 p.m. Appointments, available at covidvaccine.nj.gov, are recommended, but walk-ins are also welcome.

Avalos talked about the challenging work of the nine-member PBOH as the COVID-19 pandemic enters its third year. “Our priority has been to support the work of the health department,” she said. “They’ve been doing an enormous amount of work dealing with the pandemic and addressing the needs of the community in that context.”

Strengthening public health programs, addressing the underlying determinants (including social determinants) of health in Princeton, establishing sustainable funding for local public health, acquiring more data to assess and address community health needs, and finding ways to engage and collaborate more with local organizations have all been on the PBOH agenda this year, said Avalos.

“We encourage the public to attend our meetings [held virtually at 7:30 p.m. on the second Tuesday of each month, link at princetonnj.gov] and engage in the dialogue,” she continued. “We like to hear from members of the community who might not normally speak up, to hear about their health needs and how they perceive health in the community.”

“It’s enormously important the job that the health department and public health workers do,” said Avalos. “I hope people come to understand more and more the important role that public health plays in preventing illness and keeping people healthy.”