New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy tours an emergency field hospital being prepared at the Meadowlands Expo Center in Secaucus, N.J. | Michael Mancuso-Pool/Getty Images
It’s been one month since New Jersey recorded its first coronavirus case. Since then, almost 650 residents have died and roughly 30,000 have tested positive for the virus — a total that only reflects a sample of patients experiencing symptoms.
The worst is yet to come.
On Friday, Gov. Phil Murphy said Dr. Anthony Fauci, America’s top infectious disease expert and a key member of the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic, told him New Jersey is roughly a week away from experiencing a wave of cases similar to those seen in New York City, which has become the epicenter of the pandemic. Also on Friday, the Covid-19 death toll in New York City surpassed that of 9/11.
“[Fauci] didn’t want to hang his hat on this, but it looked to him like we’re a week-ish behind New York,” Murphy said at his daily press briefing, adding that the projection is generally in line with what New Jersey state officials are expecting.
None of this is especially surprising.
Over the last month, Murphy and state Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli have warned that New Jersey — particularly the urban and suburban communities around New York City — will likely experience major outbreaks in line with what’s played out in New York.
The outlook from hospitals across the Hudson River has been bleak.
Some physicians and medical staff have already been instructed to use their own judgment to decide which patients should be hooked up to ventilators. The life-saving machines are in short supply as an ever-growing number of Covid-19 patients require hospitalization and treatment for respiratory distress. Temporary hospitals originally built to accommodate the overflow of patients with unrelated ailments are now being asked to take in those with Covid-19.
New Jersey’s preparing for the same reality.
At least nine New Jersey hospitals have reported to the state Department of Health that they don’t have enough ventilators to treat all of their patients, Persichilli said Friday. While the state has so far been able to divert machines to those facilities, its current supply won’t be anywhere near enough when Covid-19 hospitalizations inevitably spike.
The state’s acute care hospitals have around 2,400 ventilators, roughly 1,600 of which are in use, Persichilli said. The state requested 2,500 machines from the dwindling federal stockpile. It has received just 850.
While Murphy and Persichilli have said they have enough ventilators to meet the current demand, the request of 1,650 additional machines isn’t close to the number necessary to treat patients at the pandemic’s peak.
“Our estimated gap … is that we need 6,000 more,” Persichilli said during Friday’s briefing.
With limited testing supplies and long backlogs at commercial labs, state officials have been reluctant to offer an exact projection on when the number of cases in New Jersey will peak. Hospitals in the northern part of the state are already seeing a surge in coronavirus-related hospitalizations, with several facilities diverting patients after reaching capacity over the last three days.
On Thursday, Murphy toured the first of four expected “pop-up” hospitals at the Meadowlands Exposition Center in Secaucus — about two miles from the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel. The hospital was constructed with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to hold 250 non-coronavirus patients. On Friday, Persichilli said the administration may have to reassess that plan, given the number of coronavirus patients who’ve already flooded the state’s hospitals.
For the first time on Friday, Persichilli provided clear numbers on the number of Covid-19 patients being treated in New Jersey hospitals.
Roughly 3,000 patients — representing 12 percent of the total hospitalizations in the state — have tested positive for the virus. A similar number are suspected of having the virus, but have yet to receive test results.
Of the positive cases that are hospitalized, roughly 41 percent are on ventilators.
“I had thought in the beginning it would be 50 percent,” Persichilli said. “We are planning for every critical care bed, a ventilator. We have to break down how many are in critical care, how many are not, but 41 percent is to me, a number that we can work with.”
Murphy said he expected to hold a more “moneyball”-oriented briefing early next week to discuss how the state is projecting future case totals, and how those projections mesh with persistent supply shortages.
Those shortages run the gamut.
With labs straining at capacity, state officials haven’t received data on new positive cases in a timely manner. New Jersey has spent around $27 million on roughly 10 million pieces of personal protective equipment, with 75 percent reimbursement from FEMA. Hundreds of thousands of additional pieces came in the form of donations from entities ranging from Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey to the International Longshoremen’s Association.
New Jersey also began working to source PPE from China, Taiwan and Germany, where Murphy served as ambassador during the Obama administration.
Health systems across the state are reopening closed wings to expand their capacity of acute care beds. With the health care workforce straining to meet the needs of patients, particularly in North Jersey, 7,539 individuals with medical backgrounds have volunteered their services to the state.
Murphy on Friday said he continues to solicit support from the federal government, going so far as to offer shout-outs to Trump administration stalwarts like Jared Kushner and Kellyanne Conway — both New Jersey natives — but said the state will need more as it faces down the single greatest public health crisis of the last century.
“Whether or not we’re getting all we need [from the Trump administration] is a separate question and separate matter from, are folks laying down anything remotely partisan,” Murphy said. “It’s my experience, we all are.”
Carly Sitrin contributed to this report.
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