Murphy rolls out plans for expanded testing, contact tracing as reopening pressures mount

Health workers test for the coronavirus. | Getty Images

Health workers test for the coronavirus. | Spencer Platt/Getty Images

New Jersey is about to spend hundreds of millions of dollars developing the health care infrastructure it needs to begin reopening its economy, Gov. Phil Murphy said Tuesday.

With revenue forecasts collapsing under the weight of a Covid-19 recession, Murphy described the broad contours of his administration’s plan to expand coronavirus testing and assemble a contact tracing corps in advance of the state’s economic revival.

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Both are essential for the state’s recovery from the pandemic, Murphy said. So far, the coronavirus has killed more than 9,500 New Jersey residents and infected at least 140,000.

“None of what we’re talking about today will come cheap. Maintaining both a steady supply of testing materials and a community of contact tracers will take hundreds of millions of dollars,” Murphy said during his daily briefing in Trenton, adding that as the state slides into a “fiscal emergency” caused by Covid-19, more federal aid will be paramount.

The rapid decline of New Jersey’s economy in the wake of the pandemic hastened calls from many lawmakers — including state Senate President Steve Sweeney and most, if not all, of the state’s Republican caucus — to take more aggressive steps to allow businesses to reopen.

Murphy first directed most retail businesses to close and for more residents to stay at home on March 21, a little more than two weeks after the coronavirus first arrived in New Jersey.

The enforcement of social distancing rules helped the state flatten the curve, nixing projections of hospitalization totals that would have overwhelmed the state’s health care system and likely killed thousands more.

As of Monday night, 4,328 patients were hospitalized for confirmed or suspected cases of Covid-19. That’s a decline of roughly half over the last month, according to state Department of Health data, and there are markedly fewer patients requiring intensive care, critical care or ventilators.

Even so, by recent metrics, New Jersey remains the hardest-hit state when daily rates of new infections, hospitalizations and deaths per capita are considered, Murphy said. And while hospitalization data suggests the worst days of the crisis have passed, a premature reopening of the state’s economy could be disastrous, he said.

“So to all those … Nostradamuses out there who think they can predict the future and we can open this place up wide and be carefree and get back to some semblance of where we were a couple of months ago, I want you to commit that chart to memory,” Murphy said, pointing to a bar chart showing New Jersey’s per capita totals.

The blueprint laid out by Murphy on Tuesday would have New Jersey capable of testing at least 20,000 people per day by the end of the month. The expectation is that capacity would climb to 25,000 per day by the end of June as RUCDR Infinite Biologics, a lab affiliated with Rutgers University, uses $6 million in federal funds to invest in materials and staff that would allow it to process thousands more saliva-based samples each day.

As of the end of April, New Jersey was testing around 12,000 people each day.

The state government will also hire at least one “end to end” testing vendor to supplement local health departments, according to Murphy, which Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli said would be focused on urban areas like Atlantic City, Camden, Elizabeth, Newark, Paterson and Trenton.

For now, Persichilli said, tests will largely be prioritized for vulnerable populations — such as those living in long-term care facilities, migrant workers and first responders — while eventually there’s hope for widespread screening of asymptomatic residents.

Over the coming weeks, the administration also expects to recruit and train a small army of workers — at least 1,000 people and possibly as many as 5,000 — to investigate the contacts of patients who have recently tested positive for the coronavirus.

The state Health Department is contracting with the Rutgers School of Public Health to set up the “first tranche” of that workforce, Murphy said, with hopes the contact tracers who sign up will be “as local, as diverse, as representative as the folks they’re phoning up or contacting.”

“The goal is that 90 percent of all new positive cases are contacted within 24 hours” of testing positive for contact tracing to begin, Persichilli said during the press briefing.

There are already between 800 and 900 officials serving in contract tracing capacities at the local and county level across New Jersey.

Murphy also announced Tuesday that he would sign an executive order requiring each county and local health offices to adopt a new information technology platform — Dimagi’s CommCare system — to improve coordination across contact tracing efforts across the state and greater New York City region.

“We’re going to have to use contact tracing unlike it’s ever been deployed before,” he said. “With the threat of Covid-19, we must now centralize these efforts. We are here to help the local health departments, not take them over.”

New Jersey will shoulder the costs of the contract, he said, adding that contact tracing efforts will be supplemented by the regional tracing framework rolled out by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in April. That effort is led by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, with support from Johns Hopkins University and Vital Strategies.

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