Amid COVID surge, are capacity limits ‘on the table’ again for NJ?
TRENTON — In 94 COVID-19 briefings in 2021, and 238 overall since the start of the pandemic in March 2020, one of Gov. Phil Murphy's go-to phrases has been to leave options "on the table," something he repeated in an interview on Fox News Sunday.
But in his final scheduled briefing of the year on Monday, the governor seemed to allay some fears he himself had expressed right before the weekend, suggesting Friday that capacity limits might return to New Jersey "in some form or another" in response to the surging Delta and oncoming Omicron variants.
Murphy said Monday that "nothing specific" was in the works with regard to restricting the number of people who can gather at a given place or time in the state.
"I only mentioned that as one of — in terms of what weapons do you have that are available to you," Murphy said. "I intended that to be on a list of things including getting vaccinated, getting boosted, wearing (masks) when you're inside, and then somehow finding ways to increase the distance between people or among people."
After being in place to some degree for more than a year, indoor capacity limits were lifted across New Jersey effective May 19, although at the time, businesses were asked to still keep social distancing measures intact.
On May 19, 781 people were being treated for COVID-19 at hospitals around the Garden State, and 504 new confirmed cases were reported.
Seven months later, hospitalizations are two-and-a-half times that mid-May figure, and new daily cases have increased nearly thirteenfold.
Yet while those comparisons to pre-Delta and Omicron statistics don't seem favorable and hospitals are taking on more COVID patients, Murphy and state Department of Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli did not say another suspension of elective surgeries was imminent.
Such procedures were canceled for more than two months at the outset of the pandemic. Murphy said if he had waited much longer to have what turned out to be a cancerous tumor removed from his kidney, which was done the same day New Jersey's first COVID case was announced, his surgery would have been postponed.
"We monitor (hospital) capacity every day and work with the regional coordinators, and we have triggers for capacity," Persichilli said. "So when hospitals reach 90%, we call them personally."
The health commissioner said that was standard procedure at the beginning of the pandemic, and is a practice that has resumed in the last two weeks.
Only one hospital in the state, Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital Hamilton, in Mercer County, is currently on full divert status.
Murphy said "we're nowhere near where we were," but would not specify a threshold at which the banning of elective surgeries might again be considered.
"There's no specific number, but that's something, obviously, the one thing we cannot allow is our healthcare systems and capacities to be overrun," he said.
While total COVID hospitalizations exceeded the levels of May 26, 2020, the day elective surgeries resumed, for much of last fall and winter, the number of patients in intensive care beds on that date, 768, has only been approached once.
That was almost exactly a year ago, Dec. 22, 2020, when the state reported 766 ICU patients. There are less than half that number in New Jersey ICUs now.
Patrick Lavery is New Jersey 101.5's afternoon news anchor. Follow him on Twitter @plavery1015 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.