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Murphy holds coronavirus press conference, discusses contributions from Rutgers

Gov. Phil Murphy (D-N.J.) said if the federal government does not provide additional funding for New Jersey, it could result in economic consequences for public servants.  – Photo by Rich Hundley / The Trentonian

At a press conference today, Gov. Phil Murphy (D-N.J.) announced 4,247 new cases of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in New Jersey and 307 new deaths. The statewide total is now at 99,989 cases and 5,368 deaths.

As of 10 p.m. last night, there were 7,240 COVID-19 patients hospitalized with 1,990 of them in critical or intensive care and 1,462 ventilators in use, he said. There were 782 new patients admitted to hospitals yesterday and 752 patients were discharged between Tuesday night and Wednesday night.

Murphy said although today’s number of reported cases is slightly higher than reports from the past few days, the curve of case increases is still relatively flat.

He also said the number of days it takes for COVID-19 cases to double in each county is continuing to increase, with multiple counties taking three weeks or more.

Despite the progress, Murphy said there is a lot of work to be done in regard to slowing the COVID-19 spread and said he still believes reopening the state is still multiple weeks away. He asked residents to continue social distancing in the meantime.

“But stay at it, because you are making a difference unlike, by the way, in any American state right now, and that is another source of great Jersey pride,” he said.

Murphy provided updates on the Rutgers-developed saliva test, which he said is being implemented at some of the state’s largest healthcare systems and the Policemen’s Benevolent Association-sponsored first responder testing sites. The test will also be used on all residents and staff at the state’s five centers for adults with developmental disabilities, all of which have confirmed COVID-19 cases, he said.

Testing capabilities statewide should double before the state can reopen, Murphy said, which will help officials implement contact tracing to isolate infected individuals. He said the saliva test will help the state reach this goal and thanked the University for its contribution.  

“Our state, after all, is the historic home of innovations, especially in the life sciences, and now we have a huge breakthrough coming from our very own flagship university,” Murphy said. “To be clear: Rutgers is an invaluable partner among so many in the expansion of testing statewide, and so much is being made possible (due to) this.”

Brian Strom, chancellor of Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences, spoke at the press conference about the work Rutgers is doing to combat COVID-19. He said the University actually developed two different tests so far.

Rutgers New Jersey Medical School (NJMS) developed a Food And Drug Administration (FDA)-approved point-of-care test, meaning results do not have to be sent to a lab and are made available in approximately 40 minutes, Strom said. He said the test is being used at University Hospital, NJMS, RWJBarnabas Health, Hackensack Meridian Health System, Atlantic Health System and other individual hospital systems statewide. He said this test will help the University determine when it can reopen labs and classrooms.

Rutgers—New Brunswick developed a high-throughput testing method that led to the FDA-approved saliva-based test, which gives results in 24 to 48 hours. He said this test limits the risk for healthcare workers being exposed to COVID-19, reduces personal protective equipment usage and limits the needs for swabs and viral transport media, which in turn makes it faster to collect specimens and easier to conduct tests.

Strom said all employees at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital will be tested for COVID-19 beginning tomorrow and walk-up testing sites will open in New Brunswick and Perth Amboy. Camden County will also use the saliva test for its employees and approximately 31 long-term care facilities over the next two weeks, he said. The University is also in contact with Newark officials to offer testing to residents there. 

“With this new testing, we can test 10,000 people in a day, and it is expandable in a modular fashion at an additional 10,000 people a day for a second module and yet a third 10,000 people a day for a third module,” Strom said.

Strom also said the University is fighting the pandemic in other ways through clinical faculty and staff as well as the medical, nursing and pharmacy students who are graduating early to contribute to the COVID-19 response. He said multiple research initiatives to learn more about the virus and potential treatments are underway.

Murphy also addressed the economic challenges facing the state during the COVID-19 crisis. In recent weeks, he has repeatedly appealed to the federal government for additional funding. He said the funding received through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act was insufficient to make up for the economic losses New Jersey is currently facing. 

Additionally, Murphy said he was initially promised the funds could be applied to whatever sectors needed them most, but received guidance yesterday from the Department of the Treasury that suggests otherwise.

“(The) Treasury’s guidance renders much of this funding literally unusable, and without additional flexibility will mean that we will likely not only not be able to use it, but we’ll have to return a good chunk of it to the federal government,” Murphy said.

He said unlike the federal government, state governments cannot acquire a deficit and must create a budget each year. The COVID-19 outbreak and subsequent statewide stay-at-home order resulted in a major loss of the state’s income, which could impact the state’s ability to pay public servants such as police officers, teachers, firefighters or paramedics, Murphy said.

Murphy said the state should be allowed to use the CARES Act funding for whatever means officials deem necessary, including supporting municipalities and school districts. He said he has been in contact with lawmakers and will continue to advocate for additional funding in order to preserve public services in New Jersey.

“Sadly, the message from Washington to our first responders and to our educators and to others on the front lines is clear: As you work tirelessly to stop this pandemic, to keep people safe, our national leadership thinks you are not essential and, in fact, that you should fear for your jobs,” he said.

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