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May 12, 2020

New Jersey unveils COVID-19 testing, contact tracing programs

At least 20,000 COVID-19 tests will be conducted daily by the end of the month, Gov. Phil Murphy said

Health News Coronavirus
New Jersey COVID-19 testing contact tracing Edwin J. Torres/New Jersey Office of the Governor

Gov. Phil Murphy said that the state's COVID-19 testing and contact tracing programs will help New Jersey get closer to reopening its economy amid the coronavirus pandemic.

New Jersey unveiled its much-anticipated contact tracing and coronavirus testing programs on Tuesday, as it prepares to to begin lifting restrictions implemented to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

The state will hire at least 1,000 people to create the workforce for New Jersey's contact tracing program, which currently consists of 800-900 paid and volunteer community contact tracers. 

Gov. Phil Murphy said New Jersey will partner with the state's colleges and universities had hire some of the school's public health and social work students as frontline workers in the program. That includes students from Rutgers' School of Public Health, which will offer the first group of new contact tracers across the state.

Contact tracing, which has occurred locally or regionally, will be centralized and orchestrated statewide, as local health departments and state health officials will have access to the same information and data, Murphy said. The state is also looking to increase collaboration between municipalities to create more uniformity across counties.

"We're going to have to use contact tracing unlike it's ever been deployed before," Murphy said.

The state is approaching its goal of conducting at least 20,000 COVID-19 tests per day by the end of May, and officials hope to perform at least 25,000 coronavirus tests daily by the end of June, Murphy said. New Jersey was conducting 18,000 tests per day during March and April.

The state also has 135 public and private testing sites available to residents across New Jersey. Some of those are at pharmacies, like Rite Aid and CVS.

"We're continuing to ramp up our testing capacity and testing sites," Murphy said. "More testing means more people will know their health status. That means more peace of mind. More testing creates more data. More data allows us to take more steps forward."

The testing program will focus on three different groups: vulnerable populations, frontline workers, and the general public, Murphy said. Testing supplies will be distributed by the state to areas that are potential hotspots to protect against a second wave of coronavirus infections.

The New Jersey Department of Health now requires all residents and staff at long-term care facilities to get tested for COVID-19 by May 26. Follow-up testing must occur at least a week later, and all nursing homes must update their coronavirus outbreak prevention plans by next Tuesday.

More than 500 long-term care facilities in New Jersey have reported COVID-19 outbreaks, and 26,276 coronavirus cases and 4,953 deaths from COVID-19 have occurred in nursing homes. That accounts for more than 18% of New Jersey's total number of cases and 52% of the state's deaths in the outbreak.

The state has begun regularly testing vulnerable populations for COVID-19, such as residents and staff at New Jersey's five developmental centers for adults with intellectual disabilities and correctional officers and inmates at the state's prisons.

First responders, healthcare personnel, food service employees, and NJ Transit workers already are able to get tested for COVID-19 across New Jersey. 

The department of health is also issuing a standing order to expand access to testing without a prescription for New Jersey residents who have possibly been exposed to COVID-19, lack access to primary care physicians, and fall into the priority categories. The initiative is "particularly important for our communities of color," Murphy said. 

The program's goal is that every New Jersey resident can get tested for the virus, Murphy said, whether or not a person is expressing symptoms of COVID-19.

Until there is a proven vaccine for COVID-19, testing and contact tracing are the best methods to mitigating the spread of coronavirus across the state, Murphy said. Murphy warned that both data-driven programs will cost hundreds of millions of dollars to operate, but that each is essential for New Jersey to consider reopening.

"We're expanding access to testing and putting together a robust tracing effort to give us faith that the public's health will continue to be priority No. 1," Murphy said. "Without that faith, there can be no economic restart or recovery."

New Jersey reported an additional 898 confirmed coronavirus cases on Tuesday, bringing the state's total to 140,743. The state recorded 198 more deaths due to COVID-19, increasing the total number of deaths from the virus to 9,508.

South Jersey has had 14,324 positive coronavirus cases and 709 deaths due to COVID-19.

Testing and contact tracing are the second and third steps of Murphy's six-point plan for reopening New Jersey's economy after the coronavirus pandemic, which he unveiled on April 27

Murphy has said that contact tracing depends on coordination of state and local officials to deploy contact tracers and share data about people who test positive for COVID-19 and the people with which those patients have been in contact.

State health officials estimate between 15 and 81 contact tracers will be needed for every 100,000 residents, based upon federal guidance. In New Jersey, that is a total of 1,300 to 7,000 contact tracers.

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