May 18, 2022

Pandemic’s New Phase “Will Test Us All”

By Donald Gilpin

With COVID case numbers rising again in Princeton and throughout the state, mask mandates have returned for Princeton Public Schools (PPS), as well as a number of other schools, in following New Jersey Department of Health (NJDOH) guidance. It’s another troubling development in the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’ve entered new territory recently that will test us all,” said Princeton Board of Health Chair Dr. George DiFerdinando in an email on Monday. He went on to describe the current situation that has left many confused. “We’re at a moment of broad risk of infection and yet reduced incidence of severe illness,” he continued, “This situation can be confusing because during much of the pandemic, even after vaccination, infections and severe illnesses have tracked together. That’s no longer the case, at least for now.”

Noting that reported case numbers are increasing locally and throughout the country, he added, “Hospitalized and ICU-hospitalized patients are way down, which says that the severity of the pandemic is down, even if the number of infections may not be.”

The Princeton Health Department on May 16 reported 107 new cases in the previous seven days, 200 in the previous 14 days. May 9 totals were 108 for the previous seven days, 168 for the previous 14 days. Princeton recorded its highest totals in early January this year, with 287 cases reported in a single week, 568 in a two-week period.

The latest NJDOH COVID-19 activity level map shows five out of six regions in the state, including Mercer County in the Central West region, are at “high” risk for COVID-19 activity.

An email sent out last Friday to all PPS families, students, and staff, announced that, because of an increase in COVID-19 cases, starting on Monday, May 16, “the district will return to universal masking for all indoor activities and classes. Masks will also be required on PPS buses.”

The letter continues, “PPS does not want to be in a position where the district would be required to move to a remote-only option for any of our schools, which would have a negative impact on students’ social-emotional and educational needs. Please bring a mask to school Monday morning.”

The PPS COVID-19 dashboard reported 95 new cases for the week ended May 13, up from 88, 48, and 18 in the three preceding weeks.

Drawing on background information used by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Di Ferdinando noted the four phases of disaster response: mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery. He emphasized the challenges that lie ahead.

“While we’re still in response phase, we’ve moved to recovery too, and need to consciously consider recovery actions to help people now, as well as preparedness for any future COVID mutations and/or future pandemics,” he said. “The need for recovery now is glaring. Everywhere we look, we can find evidence that individuals are suffering, financially, in mental health consequences of the shutdown of our society and the stress of the past two and a half years, and, for many, the long effects of COVID.”

He continued, “The recovery phase we’ve entered may be harder than anticipated, as any supports will not be as ‘simple’ as masking, distancing, and vaccination. All parts of our town will need to maintain support for many people who live and/or work here.”

In the coming weeks, DiFerdinando warned, “More get-togethers will invariably lead to more infections, even among the vaccinated.”  He recommended cautiously planning ahead and considering: “Are you at higher risk for severe disease (over 65, overweight, diabetes, hypertension, pregnancy)? If so, you’ll want to keep a good mask handy, maintain your vaccination status as ‘up to date,’ and defer participation based on your concerns.”

The Princeton Health Department will be hosting three free COVID-19 vaccine clinics in June, at the Princeton Farmers Market in the Dinky Train Station Parking Lot on June 2 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and on June 16 from 10 a.m. to noon; and at the Princeton United Methodist Church, 7 Vandeventer Avenue, on June 29 from 5 to 7 p.m.

In commenting on Princeton’s response to the pandemic over the past two and a half years, DiFerdinando cited the leadership of health officer Jeff Grosser and the sustained support the health department has received from Princeton Council and Mayors Liz Lempert and Mark Freda.  “During the ‘shutdown phase’ of year one and the subsequent ‘vaccination phase’ since early 2021, the public and private organizations of Princeton have done great support work for all of Princeton, especially among those at higher risk of bad outcomes,” DiFerdinando said.