As the state hit its highest single-day total of new COVID-19 cases in more than four months, officials warned Thursday that New Jersey is bracing for a potential second wave of the coronavirus that could escalate quickly if residents become complacent about prevention practices.
“We are anticipating a second wave and are preparing based on lessons learned from our prior experiences,” state Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli said at the state’s latest coronavirus briefing in Trenton. "If individuals do not adhere to social distancing, masking guidelines, washing your hands, staying home if you are sick, this wave has the potential to become a surge.”
New Jersey reported 1,301 new cases — the most in one day since 1,394 on May 29 — led by a sustained spike in Ocean County and its largest municipality, Lakewood. The Jersey Shore county had 285 positive tests, with 206 in Lakewood alone.
The good news: Persichelli said New Jersey is better prepared now than it was for the first COVID-19 wave in the spring, having been stockpiling personal protective equipment, ventilators, and experimental medications.
But unlike its peak in April, the state would be on its own in a battling a second wave since it’s likely to sweep through the United States more evenly than the initial wave that focused on New Jersey and New York, Persichilli said. As a result, New Jersey can’t rely on health care workers from other states to come in to help if frontline workers start becoming ill in greater numbers.
Thursday’s caseload comes from double the state’s recent average of tests conducted per day, which could help account for the massive increase. But cases have been trending up for a while and the state’s 71 hospitals had 652 patients as of Wednesday night — the fifth consecutive day of increases and the highest number of patients since Aug. 5.
Dr. Edward Lifshitz, medical director of the state Department of Health’s Communicable Disease Service, said officials expected to see New Jersey’s numbers surge in the fall, especially with more people heading back indoors as the weather cools. But Lifshitz said the state is “keeping a very close eye on this.”
“There’s a bunch of different reasons why this number may be higher than would be expected,” he said of Thursday’s 1,301 cases. “But certainly, it is concerning we’re seeing this trend up and that number is so high.”
Officials continue to devote resources to Monmouth and Ocean counties, which accounted for 32% of new cases Thursday.
Persichilli said Lakewood — which is home to approximately 106,000 residents, more than half of them part of one of the largest Orthodox Jewish communities on the East Coast — is seeing an increase of cases in males ages 19 to 49 who are primarily white.
“Some of the increase in COVID-19 cases may be related to gatherings associated with religious services and/or celebrations that occurred in late September,” the health commissioner said.
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur were both during the second half of the month and the week-long holiday of Sukkot started Friday.
The state is working with local officials in Lakewood to increase testing, Persichilli said. On Wednesday, more than 1,000 tests were administered in Lakewood.
Pesichilli said health officials are also monitoring increases in positive cases among college-aged residents in Monmouth and Middlesex counties, home to Monmouth University and Rutgers University, respectively.
“Any communal living presents an at-risk situation,” she said. “Cases don’t appear to be associated with on-campus instruction but rather are associated with informal gatherings and socializing.”
Gov. Phil Murphy called the state’s latest figures “sobering” and urged people to continue social distancing, washing hands, and wearing a mask.
Murphy said he’s not yet ready to call for any statewide return to sweeping coronavirus restrictions, and would more likely favor localized efforts to control the hotspots.