COURT HOUSE - In the last week, COVID-19 cases in Cape May County continued to grow.
Those who fear an economic restart point to 69 new, confirmed cases and five additional fatalities. Those desperate to begin digging out from the financial chaos look to a slower rate of growth across the state, to the fact that 40% of the county’s cases now recovered sufficiently to be removed from quarantine, and to a high percentage of the remaining active cases located in long-term care facilities.
The reality of the public health crisis still looms, and so does the economic crisis as well.
Gov. Phil Murphy has a Restart and Recovery Commission. The county has a Business Recovery Task Force. Municipalities have created similar advisory groups.
No one is avoiding daily reports of new confirmed cases or the grim reality of new fatalities, but the last week has been largely about finding a way to reopen.
Murphy allowed the first crack in his relentless stay-at-home restrictions May 2, when he opened state and county parks and golf courses. Immediately, Cape May opened its beaches and Promenade. Other municipalities plan beach openings this week.
Each reopening comes with social distancing rules. A restart is not a return to normal, as much as an invitation to a new normal.
New Jersey's four most-southern counties account for about 2% of the state’s total COVID-19 cases. Cape May County's experience has been vastly different from northern counties caught up in what became the national epicenter for the disease.
The fact that the local economy is predominantly seasonal threatens the prospect of an economic disaster and creates demands for a reasoned and gradual reopening.
Los Alamos National Laboratory, one of the nation’s senior research facilities, has a model of COVID-19's spread. The laboratory, most famous for its role in the Manhattan Project, which developed the first nuclear bomb, projects new cases and associated deaths up to six weeks into the future on a state-by-state basis. It is one of a half dozen such models located at scientific research facilities across the country.
New Jersey reported 126,744 cases and 7,871 fatalities May 3. The Los Alamos model, projecting to mid-June, sees those fatalities increasing to over 13,000, as the total pushes upward at over 1% per day. How much over depends on assumptions about restrictions.
The model may or may not be accurate. The reality of increases in new cases and deaths will remain as the reopening expands, despite how gradual that expansion is.
Experts agree that testing, safe isolation, and effective contact tracing is the key to avoiding worst-case scenarios. Without it, they predict new spikes in the outbreak, new restrictions on movement, and new economic pain. The virus is the ultimate arbiter of the quality of our reopening plans.
A recent study by the Harvard Global Health Institute analyzes state-by-state testing capacity. The study was not based on simple population size, but on the “size of the outbreak in the state.” The news for New Jersey is challenging.
For a safe reopening, the state needs the capacity to test about 75,000 people per day, along with the associated capability to isolate the infected and perform the necessary contact tracing. New Jersey's testing, according to the COVID-19 Tracking Project, has topped 10,000 tests per day only twice since testing began being reported in early March.
If the experts agree on nothing else this week, it is that massive testing and robust contact tracing is the key to a successful reopening of the national, state, and local economies.
It remains one of the provisions to watch for as reopening plans are issued. This will not be a matter of political debate.
If reopening protocols fail at hindering the virus's spread, restrictions that follow may be more draconian.
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