By Mark Koosau and Daniel Israel
After decreasing in the wake of the holiday season surge, COVID-19 cases have begun to gradually increase again in Hudson County.
The county has seen a seven-day average of 361 cases since May 19, a 68 percent increase over the past 14 days, and the highest in recent months. The number of cases since the holiday surge had leveled since early-to-mid February.
The average cases in the county was at 318 on Feb. 1, and had reduced to the lowest average at 68 cases on March 17. Cases had then begun to increase again to around an average of 97 on April 2.
The trends are also seen on the local level. In Jersey City, 228 cases were reported on May 19, with a seven-day average of 154. In comparison, there were an average of 37 cases at the beginning of March. Over in Hoboken, the city had a seven-day average of about 44 cases since May 13, compared to an average of about 23 cases back on March 1.
Hospitalization for COVID have increased as well, with an average of 35 patients being reported between May 6 to 12, compared to about 14 patients from April 1 to 6. Although cases have increased, the death rate has remained next-to-zero so far. Both the hospitalization and death rates remain lower than they were during the holiday surge.
Bayonne sees the signs of a surge?
In Bayonne, things are a little different, with only one patient at Bayonne Medical Center as of May 12. Health Officer Michele O’Reilly told the Bayonne Community News that while cases are increasing by the day, things are still stable in the city.
As of May 9, the COVID-19 Activity Level Index (CALI) score increased to high, which indicates a high level of transmission of COVID-19 across Hudson County, O’Reilly said. She added the county and Bayonne is still predominantly seeing the Omicron variant for a large majority of cases, which have been increasing each week this month.
“We have seen a slight increase week by week,” O’Reilly said. “From the beginning of May, we started to see about 15 cases a day. The following week, we started seeing about 30 cases a day. Then, on Friday on the 13th we had seen that number almost double. So we have definitely seen increasing cases.”
Due to the availability of at-home testing, other testing options, and the shuttering of the municipal testing site, the city no longer reports active case numbers or positivity rates. “It is very difficult to determine,” O’Reilly said.
Soon municipalities across Hudson County could incorporate the results of at-home tests into local statistics, O’Reilly added. She said things continue to change as the pandemic enters the endemic phase, such as contact tracing becoming a thing of the past.
“As we move into the endemic phase of the COVID-19 response, we are relying heavily on cases to notify their own direct contacts,” she said.
O’Reilly noted there have been some outbreaks in Bayonne, particularly in child care settings. However, things are far from where they were during the recent holiday surge.
“The children or clients from those child care centers don’t have the ability to get vaccinated at this time,” O’Reily said. “Some there are some outbreaks there and some outbreaks in schools, especially since Gov. [Phil] Murphy’s lifting of the universal mask mandate back in February. So there have been some outbreaks, which is to be expected.”
Readying for another an increase
If the outbreaks get worse, O’Reilly said the city could erect another municipal COVID-19 testing site again.
“Bayonne stands ready to initiate additional COVID-19 testing sites as we have plenty of test kits in our personal inventory to be able to pop up a testing site if necessary,” O’Reilly said. “We are also putting residents in touch with vaccination and booster opportunities on a daily basis.”
However, vaccination sites may be a thing of the past, according to O’Reilly. She added that if the demand did arise, the city could acquire more doses and stand up a vaccination site again if necessary, but local and large retail pharmacies are providing vaccines.
“If this pandemic was anything, it was ever-changing,” O’Reily said. “So if there was a need to do that again in the future, of course we’d be ready to get some more vaccine inventory in stock and set up another site. But I think it’s too early to tell.”
Meanwhile, the city continues to work with the school district to protect those most vulnerable to the outbreaks, O’Reilly said.
“As soon as we found out the CALI score had reached high, we reached out to our partners at the Bayonne Board of Education, and they were very quick to respond with some messaging to the community as well to inform the parents, students, and staff,” O’Reilly said. “We worked closely with them too on some messaging on masking, and some additional signage if necessary. The Board of Education has been a phenomenal partner.’
Overall, O’Reilly said Bayonne is still holding strong: “Bayonne is faring well. It’s to be expected and I think the mission now is to focus more on the boosters, the vaccine testing, and the COVID therapeutics, more of like a pivot to that as we move into the endemic status of COVID-19.”
West New York seeing COVID-19 rise too
O’Reilly is also the Health Officer for West New York through a shared services agreement with the town. She said the town is doing similarly to Bayonne as she works closely with the administration and Communicable Disease Investigator.
“It’s kind of a similar scenario across the board,” O’Reilly said. “There’s always just constant communication back and forth. They’re always going off of what is working in Bayonne and implementing that in West New York. They’re very open and willing to anything that we do in our approach.”
Part of the approach to mitigating COVID-19 involves working with the West New York school district. O’Reilly continued: “I’ve spoken with the Superintendent of West New York to get the message out there to them as well in regards to the slight increase in COVID.”
According to O’Reilly, West New York is seeing week by week increases in COVID-19 cases throughout the past month, but to a less severe extent. This past week, the town has seen numbers as low as 14 to as high as 30 new cases a day as of May 20.
“West New York hasn’t seen as many cases over the past three week as Bayonne, but the good thing is that there has been no additional deaths in either municipality,” O’Reilly said.
West New York is holding the line for now, although the town could see things continue to worsen such as Bayonne, Jersey City, Hoboken, and potentially the rest of the county.
“It’s been a pretty similar response,” O”Reilly said. “The good thing about Hudson County is that all of the Health Officers talk to each other. We do touch base, speak often, help each other out, and offer advice and recommendations. We’re all just working together to ensure each municipality continues to respond to COVID-19 safely and effectively.”
Multifactorial cause in increase
The causes of the increases are multifactorial, according to a number of health experts, such as waning immunity, new variants, and the relaxing of mask mandates in schools and public spaces.
“Society has sort of readjusted to normal in the sense that the precautions that people were taking prior when it came to mask use, travel, and being socially distant are now waning,” said Dr. John Rimmer, the Chief Medical Officer at Hoboken Medical Center. “As a result, I think we’re gonna have bumps in cases fairly sporadically moving forward.”
Officials locally and statewide have moved towards an endemic approach to COVID-19. New Jersey lifted its school mask mandate in March, with a number of Hudson County schools following suit, as well as for NJ Transit and other public transportation in April after a Trump-appointed federal judge voided the national mask mandate for transportation.
Dr. Schubert Perotte, the Chair of Emergency Medicine at Jersey City Medical Center, believes that part of the reason for officials changing their approach is when they look at the number of cases in the past, as well as the vaccination rate.
“I think the consideration is that the amount of people that will require hospitalization, given the past presentation, has been relatively low, and we’ve still been able to conduct our businesses, both here at the hospital and outside the walls of the hospital,” he said. “They haven’t been severely impacted by those surges.”
Both doctors said that hospitalizations have increased at their respective hospitals, but have not reached the levels from the holiday surge that was fueled by the highly-transmissible Omicron variant.
For updates on this and other stories, check hudsonreporter.com and follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Daniel Israel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Mark Koosau can be reached at email@example.com or his Twitter @snivyTsutarja.