How NJ Will Ramp Up COVID-19 Testing And Track Down Potential New Positives (Updated)

The Murphy administration plans to increase the state’s daily COVID-19 testing capacity by more than double, to 20,000, by the end of May, and to 25,000 by the end of June.

In order to track down the mass influx of people who may have been in contact with new positives, the state will add in a statewide “corps” of 1,000 contact tracers.

They will complement the 900 statewide contact tracers, who are employed at the county level, Murphy said.

But the state could need as many as 5,000 community-level contact tracers, according to Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli – and a good chunk of them would need to be multilingual.

The state is purchasing the program CommCare from technology firm Dimagi, which will enable public health officials to centralize data collection, so as to go after potential spikes in new cases.

“Contact tracing has remained largely a local or regional effort. We must now centralize these efforts,” Murphy said Tuesday at his daily COVID-19 press briefing in Trenton.

The mass testing and contact tracing are steps two and three of the six milestones that the state needs to reach before a significant number of restrictions could be lifted, Murphy said.

New Jersey has already seen significant drops in the number of new COVID-19 cases, deaths and hospitalizations over the past two weeks, which makes up the first step.And the state is far ahead of many other states when it comes to these metrics, the governor added.

Still, May 12 was the first time in two months – close to the onset of the pandemic – that the state saw less than 1,000 new cases in a single day, with 898 new cases reported.

The goal, Murphy added, is to “give everybody out there and everybody watching the confidence that we have got the infrastructure in place so that as we begin to reopen the state, they know we’re on it, that we can spot community spread or a flareup with very short notice… that you feel good about jumping in and taking us up on that opening.”

The state has three separate groups of testing populations, Murphy said. The first is vulnerable populations such as senior citizens, and residents of the state’s long-term care centers such as nursing and veterans homes.

An order coming today from the state’s Department of Health will mandate that the 675 long-term care facilities test all staff and residents by May 26, with a follow-up testing a week later.

They have until May 19 to submit a plan for how to handle residents and staff who’ve tested positive in order to mitigate potential outbreaks, Persichilli added.

The second group is “frontline workers,” which are “essential employees” at businesses allowed to stay open – such as transit and health care workers.

The third group is the community at large, such as residents suspected to have been exposed to anyone who tested positive.

To that end, the Murphy administration will send mobile testing centers to some of the state’s largest cities – Elizabeth, Trenton, Camden, Paterson, Atlantic City and Newark – according to Persichilli – and at religious centers.

Many of those cities have large communities of color and lower-income residents, all of whom have been at a much higher risk of contracting COVID-19.

A recent study from the Harvard Global Institute suggests that New Jersey conducts roughly 75,000 tests a day.

Rite Aid has 14 sites across the state that are offering free COVID-19 tests with or without symptoms, but by appointment only. CVS will begin offering free saliva swab tests at 50 locations across the state.

Still, requirements and guidelines on how potential COVID-19 cases will be isolated or quarantined have not yet been unveiled.

That would be hashed out by the health commissioner, Murphy wrote in a Tuesday evening executive order.

The contact tracers will be paid roughly $25 an hour, Murphy said, and the price tag will be in the “hundreds of millions” of dollars in the next six months.

They would have to “identify those who come in contact with individuals who tested positive,” Persichilli said.

“This process is routinely used in public health to identify vulnerable populations,” the health commissioner added, and they would use interviews with positive cases to identify those contacts.

That would require the contact tracers to have good people skills and be aware of differences across cultures, and assurances that the information would be kept confidential, said State Epidemiologist Christina Tan.

The health departments, through extensive interviews, will look at whoever the patient had contact within the 48 hours before they first began showing symptoms, Tan said.

The contacts include “household” and “occupational contacts.

“They’re asking every day, every hour since that 48-hour point… ‘who have you come in contact with’… those individual names are identified. Those are then presented to the local health departments, then followed up with.”

“The contact tracers will say ‘you were exposed to COVID-19 and now here are the steps you need to take’.”

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