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COVID-19 moves to a ‘new stage’ in Pa. and N.J. as cases and hospitalizations plummet

Public health experts remain cautiously optimistic, but say there is some epidemiological basis behind the recent talk of “moving forward beyond the pandemic."

UPS driver Terron Coleman, center right, talks with Mayank Amin, center left, owner of Skippack Pharmacy, during a celebration event held by Skippack Pharmacy to recognize Coleman for his role in delivering PPE and vaccines throughout the pandemic.
UPS driver Terron Coleman, center right, talks with Mayank Amin, center left, owner of Skippack Pharmacy, during a celebration event held by Skippack Pharmacy to recognize Coleman for his role in delivering PPE and vaccines throughout the pandemic.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

After more than 250 pandemic briefings, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy made an optimistic announcement this week: His final regularly scheduled COVID-19 briefing will be held Friday, March 4, exactly two years since the state’s first recorded case of the virus.

“As we move into our new normal, and transition from a pandemic stance to an endemic one, there is no longer the need for us to gather here at a set time every week,” the governor said.

Murphy is one of several officials who recently have signaled the dawn of a new stage in the pandemic, which has killed millions and upended everyone’s lives over the past two years.

The CDC shared a similar hopefulness Friday, relaxing its guidance for masking and social distancing by tying the necessity of such measures to hospitalizations in a community, in addition to case counts.

As cases and hospitalizations fall to levels not seen since before the omicron surge, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware are among the many states that have recently announced the termination or relaxation of mitigation measures, including mask and vaccine mandates in some settings.

“I really do think that there is a lot to celebrate right now,” Pennsylvania Acting Health Secretary Keara Klinepeter said Friday at a news conference. “Certainly we are moving into a new stage.”

James Garrow, spokesperson for the Philadelphia Health Department, said “things are safer now than they have been in a long time” and the city would not have relaxed indoor dining restrictions if it was not safe to do so.

» READ MORE: Philly ends its vaccine mandate for indoor dining, citing declining cases and need to ease burden on businesses

Montgomery County medical director Richard Lorraine called the recent case and hospitalization trends a “cause for optimism.”

Pennsylvania’s average new daily case count this week was down to levels not seen since August, according to a New York Times analysis of federal data, and the average number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients in the commonwealth hasn’t been this low since September, prior to the peak of the delta surge. Average daily reported deaths have fallen to pre-omicron levels.

In New Jersey and Delaware, average daily case counts and hospitalizations have declined to November levels, according to the Times analysis, and new reported deaths continue to fall after peaking last month.

“While we will keep monitoring the data closely, it’s time for us to move into a new phase of this pandemic that relies on everyone to take personal responsibility for managing risk of COVID-19,” said Emily Hershman, spokesperson for Delaware Gov. John Carney, adding that people should stay up-to-date on vaccinations and consider testing before visiting anyone who is vulnerable.

The level to which people shift their behaviors will vary, too, experts said. People who are immunocompromised or have children too young to be vaccinated will have different risk assessments.

» READ MORE: ‘I feel like there’s no way out’: COVID-19 fears haunt the immunocompromised

Nationally, the situation is improving every day, with average cases, hospitalizations, and deaths all on the decline.

Accounting for all these metrics, public health experts say there is some epidemiological basis behind the recent talk of “moving forward beyond the pandemic,” as Murphy said.

“There’s absolutely science to what’s being suggested right now. I think that much is clear,” said Neal Goldstein, assistant research professor of epidemiology at the Drexel University Dornsife School of Public Health. “The tension that you have here is there’s always going to be some risk. There’s no such thing as zero risk in terms of COVID right now, because of how widespread the virus is in the community.”

Jennifer Horney, founding director of the University of Delaware’s epidemiology program, noted that since the highly transmissible omicron variant was first detected in the United States in December, experts have been wondering whether it would hasten the start of the endemic stage.

But she worries, she said, about the speed at which mitigation measures have been relaxed.

“I do think we’re probably moving a bit too quickly,” Horney said. While average new daily cases across the country have fallen more than 90% since the omicron peak, “they’ve dropped 90% from extraordinarily high levels.”

However, public health leaders and experts, including Horney, say case and hospitalization numbers aren’t the only factor at play. The country now has plentiful vaccinations and other medical interventions, they say, making this stage of the pandemic different. For those who are up-to-date on vaccination, and are not otherwise vulnerable, the risk of becoming severely ill or dying from the virus is very low.

» READ MORE: 9,000 Pennsylvanians died in the omicron surge: ‘One of the most deadly waves we’ve seen’

“Any resident who has been vaccinated and boosted should feel comfortable going forward knowing they’ve already taken the most important step to prevent severe illness,” said David Damsker, director of the Bucks County Health Department. Beginning Monday, officials said, masks will be optional in county buildings and courts for vaccinated employees and visitors.

About 67% of Pennsylvanians and 74% of New Jerseyans have been vaccinated with a primary series — two doses of Moderna or Pfizer, or one dose of Johnson & Johnson — and about half of eligible residents have received their booster shots, which have been shown to provide the most protection, especially against omicron.

Given how many people were infected with omicron, it has been estimated that as much as 80% of the U.S. population could have immunity to the variant.

That leaves officials across the region cautiously optimistic for the spring and summer, despite their recollection of last summer’s delta surge.

In announcing the end of his COVID-19 briefings, Murphy noted that his team “will not hesitate to reconvene” if the pandemic situation worsens. The Pennsylvania Department of Health will remain focused on preparedness for future surges, Klinepeter said, and Philadelphia will implement stricter restrictions if case counts, hospitalizations, or test positivity rates rise.

“We’ve learned not to try to guess what will happen next,” said Philadelphia’s Garrow. “Right now, things are looking good, and we hope that Philadelphians continue to get vaccinated to help us avoid another wave of disease.”