Holiday gatherings, less mask-wearing fuel latest NJ COVID surge

Recent holiday gatherings, a rebound in travel and an overall drop in mask wearing have caused COVID cases in New Jersey to start rising again after the sharp drop following the winter omicron surge.

On Friday, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention moved Morris County into the “yellow” zone after doing the same for Bergen County earlier in the week. The designation means that both areas have moderate community levels of COVID, based on the rate of new COVID cases in the area, hospital beds used and hospital admissions.

The CDC has classified nine upstate New York counties as “orange” – meaning they have high community levels of COVID – while New York, Westchester, Orange and Nassau counties in New York are considered to have moderate levels.

The rise in infections appears to be driven in New York by two omicron subvariants, known as BA.2.12 and BA.2.12.1. Although they spread quickly, they don’t seem to cause more serious illness. But with commercial labs processing a smaller proportion of positive COVID tests and subjecting them to genetic analysis, less is known about their magnitude.

But fewer infected people need hospital care and New Jersey hospitals are in good condition, officials said Thursday.

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Bergen County’s higher community COVID rating by the CDC was due to escalating cases, not pressure on hospitals, said Dr. Edward Lifshitz, medical director for the Department of Communicable Diseases Division of the Department of Health. state health. “Hospitals are not at risk of being overwhelmed” by an increase in the number of COVID patients, he said.

Dr. Daniel Varga, chief medical officer of Hackensack Meridian Health, one of the state’s largest hospital systems, agreed. The omicron variant is highly transmissible, he said, but the New Jersey population has relatively high levels of immunity to vaccination and previous infections. As a result, what he called “this little blip” “doesn’t turn into this massive wave of hospitals that we’ve seen in the past.”

Even for patients hospitalized with COVID, the percentage requiring intensive care or a ventilator to breathe is far lower than in previous waves of COVID, he said.

Every county in New Jersey had been considered “green” – having low levels of COVID – since the CDC introduced the new system on March 24. But Lifshitz said he wouldn’t be “surprised if other New Jersey counties followed” Bergen, and were pushed back to yellow by the CDC, based on their case rates.

Due to the latest increase in cases, many New Jersey hospitals, nursing homes and rehabilitation facilities have begun reintroducing visitor limits, based on guidelines updated Wednesday by the New Jersey Hospital Association. The hospital association recommends limiting visitors to one per patient, with none for patients who are immunocompromised or diagnosed with COVID, in all but five southwestern counties.

And given the unpredictability of COVID, it was best for hospitals to be vigilant, said Hospital Association CEO Cathy Bennett. In January, “we saw hospitalizations climb very quickly,” Bennett said, although she added that there were enough beds for patients because they were being discharged more quickly.

Staffing could become a concern if the number of cases in the community reaches extremely high levels, even if they are not causing serious illness, Varga said.

The number of hospitalized COVID patients rose to 444 on Wednesday evening – the highest number in more than a month

“We are currently well positioned with hospital capacity,” Bennett said, “but the numbers continue to rise.” And without information on the results of the growing number of home tests, she added, “there is a degree of the unknown out there.”

Increasing numbers come as one the federal judge this week overturned the CDC’s federal mask requirement for planes, trains and other public transportation, and tracks decisions in each of the 50 states to remove mask mandates in public places. The Justice Department appealed the judge’s decision on Thursday at the request of the CDC, which said the mask mandate “remains necessary for public health.”

Efforts to vaccinate and give the population the first reminders against COVID also seem to have stalled. But warmer weather and more outdoor activity in the northeast are likely to dampen the spread.

In individual hospitals, the slight increase in COVID cases did not cause alarm.

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“There’s been a lot of talk recently about the increase in test positivity,” said Dr. Stephen Brunnquell, president of Englewood Health’s Physician Network and primary care physician at Harrington Park. “But a lot of [the people who test positive] are younger, healthier people who do not seek treatment. They have symptoms of a head cold or sore throat and are taking care of themselves at home with chicken soup.”

Although he’s more concerned about older patients with underlying health conditions that would make them vulnerable to complications from COVID, he said he doesn’t see them. As of Wednesday morning, Englewood Health had just three patients in the hospital who had tested positive for COVID, Brunnquell said, compared to 100 during omicron’s January spike.

“For me, the vaccine and the booster are still effective in keeping people out of the hospital,” he said.

Currently, 75.4% of the New Jersey population is fully immunized and 47.1% have received a first booster, According to the CDC.

Bergen County reported 1,833 new confirmed COVID cases from highly accurate PCR testing over the seven days ending Wednesday, according to the state Department of Health. That is a rate of 204 cases per 100,000 inhabitants. Morris County had 209 cases per 100,000 people as of Friday. Any rate above 200 per 100,000 people triggers a yellow rating by the CDC.

Statewide, 13,976 new cases have been reported in the past seven days, the CDC said.

Lindy Washburn is senior healthcare reporter for NorthJersey.com. To keep up to date with how changes in healthcare are affecting you and your family, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

E-mail: [email protected]

Twitter: @lindywa

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