EWING, N.J. — Shortly before noon on Tuesday morning, Judith Persichilli was rushing to a news conference when she got a phone call with some bad news: John Brennan, a 69-year-old man from Bergen County, had just died, New Jersey’s first fatality related to the coronavirus.
Persichilli, New Jersey’s state health commissioner, was in her car, minutes away from giving a room full of reporters a daily update on the virus. She took a moment to process the news, then started peppering her staff with questions and scribbling notes about Brennan’s case. She knew it would mark a turning point in the public narrative of the virus’ spread throughout the state.
“The first death is disturbing,” Persichilli said in an interview Wednesday. “I wanted to be able to say to people: ‘This is what it looks like.’ ”
New Jersey, like other states, has been overwhelmed by the coronavirus, which is now a declared worldwide pandemic. Gov. Phil Murphy has instituted a state of emergency. He’s recommended banning all public events of more than 250 people. More schools and colleges are shutting down by the day. Two people in New Jersey have died, and 50 have tested presumptively positive.
State officials are consumed by the crisis. Emails start coming in at 6 a.m. and don’t stop until after midnight. Agency heads gather daily at 9 a.m. to discuss how the virus is spreading. A state task force, propped up on Super Bowl Sunday, has been impaneled to coordinate statewide decisions in response to the virus.
But even the most seasoned staffers — who have dealt with blizzards, shootings, and disastrous hurricanes — find the coronavirus to be one of the toughest things they’ve had to grapple with.
“The closest thing this compares to is superstorm Sandy," said Daniel Kelly, the governor’s director of recovery efforts, referring to the 2012 hurricane that ravaged the state. “But even Sandy, there’s a certain playbook. This is difficult [because] the storm hasn’t fully, fully hit yet.”
Public health experts say a “whole of government approach” is crucial to stemming the spread of the coronavirus. Countries like Singapore have set the standard by preemptively enacting strict bans on public events and providing ample access to testing. The United States has been lagging by comparison. Test kits are in short supply, frontline health workers feel unprepared to manage the crisis, and President Donald Trump’s combative, chaotic style has been ill-suited to a nation seeking assurance.
In New Jersey, Murphy administration officials started coronavirus preparations in mid-January. Since early February, they have been meeting daily to discuss the crisis. As more people have tested positive, officials have started daily news briefings on the pandemic’s spread.
But their efforts may still amount to only so much amid the reality of a global health pandemic that has come full force to the Garden State.
“We had been preparing for weeks for this scenario,” Mahen Gunaratna, a Murphy spokesperson, said on Twitter after the first positive case was announced. “But it was still a wake-up call.”
As the number of infections in New Jersey has grown, administration officials are debating how much information to release to the news media while making sure to not incite panic. Health-care workers are concerned a shortage of tests could hamper efforts to curtain the spread of the virus. Nurses are warning that they are not getting adequate training on safety precautions, and are in short supply of key items like gloves and masks.
“Many of our [health-care] employers are rationing masks. ... They’re making people sign them out,” said Debbie White, head of the state’s health-care workers union. “In some cases they’re telling people they should reuse them.”
White added that some nurses have been told by hospital management they don’t need training on how to don protective equipment because “you were prepped during the Ebola crisis, you should know how to do that.”
Government officials say the state’s response to the virus is holistic, data-driven, and measured. They say the risk to the average New Jersey resident is low.
Officials have started to assign each county a risk rating, and have rated most counties, including those in South Jersey, as zero to minimal risk. Bergen County, which has the state’s highest number of presumptive positive cases, is rated as moderate risk. Middlesex County, which has at least five cases, is rated as “above minimal, but not moderate.”
New Jersey’s state laboratory is able to test 40 to 60 people per day for the coronavirus, a number that officials say is “enough right now,” despite fears the virus may already be spreading throughout the community undetected. Officials do not believe the state needs to change its guidelines for who gets tested, saying that may tax limited testing resources.
“We want to ensure those that need the testing get it,” Assistant Health Commissioner Chris Neuwirth said at a news conference Thursday. “When you test individuals indiscriminately … you flood the system with an enormous amount of specimens.”
Some primary care physicians are also saying more tests are needed, so the community can quickly identify how rapidly the virus may be spreading.
“Because we don’t have the test, we don’t really know the true impact here,” said Linda Girgis, 51, a primary care physician in Middlesex. “Without knowing, we could be potentially spreading it to other people.”
The government is now partnering with private labs — like LabCorp and Quest Diagnostics — to process tests, which should increase daily testing capacity. And the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, along with the state’s Health Department, has just approved a test developed by Hackensack Meridian Health Center that should be able to return a presumptive positive result in hours, not days.
“We believe our test could make the difference in stemming outbreaks,” said Dr. David Perlin, chief scientific officer of Hackensack Meridian Health Center for Discovery and Innovation. “It’s fast and it’s accurate, and crucial hours could mean the difference in stopping the spread of this virus.”
With all the chaos and public uncertainty, officials know the end is nowhere near in sight, and that the coronavirus will affect the lives of New Jerseyans for weeks and months to come.