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New Jersey and Philadelphia end their COVID briefings, underscoring officials’ desire to ‘move forward’

"It is the right time” to end the briefings, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said. “We are ready to move forward.”

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy speaks to reporters during a COVID-19 briefing in Trenton on Feb. 7.
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy speaks to reporters during a COVID-19 briefing in Trenton on Feb. 7.Read moreSeth Wenig / AP

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy held what he said would be his last weekly COVID-19 news conference on Friday, saying he hoped it would be “the final encore” after more than 250 briefings since the pandemic began.

The milestone came two days after Philadelphia health officials held their final regular briefing. It’s among a cascade of moves made by federal, state, and city leaders since the omicron surge began declining that reflect both decreasing case counts and hospitalizations and public pressure to move toward normalcy.

In recent weeks, Murphy, the vice chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, has been a leader of blue-state governors who have announced the relaxation of mask mandates and other restrictions and begun discussing a “new phase” or “new normal” beyond the pandemic.

“As the coronavirus moves from pandemic to endemic, and we transition away from crisis management to a more normal way of life, it is the right time” to end the briefings, Murphy said Friday. “We are ready to move forward.”

Friday marked two years since New Jersey’s first coronavirus case was announced; Pennsylvania’s first cases were identified on March 6, 2020. Since then, the two states have recorded nearly 5 million cases, at least, and more than 76,000 people have died, according to CDC data.

And Murphy has held more than 250 news conferences with his top officials, giving updates on the ups and downs of COVID-19 that were normally both spirited and somber and made him one of the pandemic’s most regularly visible governors.

“We have asked so much of each and every New Jerseyan for the past two years,” Murphy said. “I know you are exhausted, both mentally and physically, and ready to return to normal. And let there be no doubt, so are we. We persevered and fought. … That’s why we are at this point today.”

» READ MORE: Living by their own rules: Two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, these five people share how their survival strategies have evolved

Across the country, the average daily case count is as low as it’s been since late July, before the delta surge, according to New York Times analysis of federal data, and has dropped more than 90% since the peak of the omicron wave in January. Virus-related hospitalizations, including ones requiring intensive-care, and new reported deaths are also declining. The numbers in Pennsylvania and New Jersey largely mirror those trends.

Whether the pandemic actually is endemic yet, and even how endemic should be defined, is being debated among scientists and doctors. Some experts have said in recent days that it’s OK to start relaxing, at least for now, but others have questioned elected officials’ declarations that people can move forward.

“We’re moving toward a state of endemicity” but aren’t there yet, said William John Moss, executive director of the International Vaccine Access Center at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. He said the national case and death numbers still put the United States in pandemic mode.

“We are at a point where things have improved, so in one sense it is endemic,” said Priya Sampathkumar, infectious disease specialist at the Mayo Clinic. But “we are still losing people to COVID-19 deaths that could be prevented. It’s too early to be declaring victory.”

Murphy and New Jersey Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli made clear Friday that the virus would remain a part of life, much like other viruses, and said they anticipate more surges. Persichilli said they may bring back in-person briefings and restrictions if the pandemic worsens again to the point that hospitals are severely strained.

“We’re moving from a pandemic phase to a more endemic phase. That doesn’t mean we’re putting out a sign that says ‘Mission accomplished; the virus is gone and it’s not going to cause any issues or problems down the road,’ ” said New Jersey medical director Ed Lifshitz. “We do need to learn to live with it. We don’t think it’s going to completely go away. And that’s what endemic means.”

» READ MORE: Philly’s mask mandate ends, marking a step closer to normal but drawing mixed reactions

With the omicron surge receding, signs of that shift in thinking are evident in restaurants, entertainment venues, and elsewhere. After Philadelphia this week announced the dropping of its mask mandate, some venues, including the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Wells Fargo Center, said they would soon stop requiring masks.

New Jersey’s universal school mask mandate is also set to end Monday, a move Murphy last month called “a huge step back to normalcy for our kids.” Because the school mask mandate was the state’s “last major mitigation measure,” Murphy said he would also end the public health emergency Monday.

Murphy’s regular COVID-19 briefings began in March 2020 with cautious, calm messages assuring New Jerseyans that public health measures would protect them and their families. Soon, briefings became urgent for state leaders like him as case spread exploded, schools closed, and the country locked down.

As the months wore on, the governor became known for calling out people flouting pandemic rules, calling them “knuckleheads.” He promoted getting vaccinated and boosted, often displaying an analysis of state breakthrough case data to show how effective the shots are at preventing severe illness and death.

At every briefing, Murphy spent a few minutes speaking about a few residents who had recently died of the virus, in total honoring nearly 650 of the more than 30,000 residents who have died.

The governor became emotional Friday as he recounted the conversations with families and friends of the deceased, saying he had spoken to more than 1,000 people who had lost someone. “We never wanted any life reduced to being just a number,” he said.

Murphy thanked residents who followed the state’s guidance, gotten vaccinated and boosted, and took small steps that together better protected their communities.

“You put in the hard work and as we move to this next phase, all I can say is this: Be safe. Be smart,” Murphy said. “Enjoy the upcoming spring and warmer weather. Enjoy getting together with family and friends.

“And, one last time,” he added, “don’t be a knucklehead.”