This story was written and produced by NJ Spotlight. It is being republished under a special NJ News Commons content-sharing agreement related to COVID-19 coverage. To read more, visit njspotlight.com.
New Jersey plans to provide widespread COVID-19 testing — for those with or without symptoms — at state-run facilities for vulnerable populations, long-term care centers, among migrant workers and via mobile clinics dispatched to urban centers, officials announced Monday.
While details and timing have yet to be made public, Gov. Phil Murphy and Department of Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli outlined their intentions to expand screenings for the novel coronavirus at certain residential institutions and in communities that have been especially hard-hit by COVID-19 but lack easy access to existing testing programs. Testing is also being discussed for group homes and other operations overseen by the Department of Human Services, a spokesman said.
Testing is now available at more than 100 public and private sites but has largely been limited to those showing signs of viral infection; in addition, the current capacity only allows for about 10,000 samples to be processed daily. In announcing the goals of his six-point recovery plan last week, Murphy said the state must double the daily testing capacity — a process he said would take until late May — before New Jersey can safely reopen businesses and public spaces.
Trump helps speed timeline
But that timeline appeared to change after Murphy’s visit to the White House on Thursday. That afternoon the governor announced the Trump administration had provided New Jersey with 550,000 additional diagnostic tests and 750,000 swabs to help advance its reopening strategy. The state will also deploy a saliva-based test developed with Rutgers University, which academic leaders have said could be scaled up within weeks to screen at least 20,000 people daily.
“We finally as of the end of (last) week, have the raw materials that we need to at least double our testing capacity,” Murphy said Monday, “and we are now going through the rankings of where we are going to deploy those resources. That’s being developed as we speak.”
“Communities of particular exposure are our highest priorities — so the most vulnerable communities among us,” Murphy continued, noting prisons and facilities for those with disabilities. “And the idea of mobile vans in our urban centers. We’re going through rings of priorities now.”
New Jersey has been an epicenter in the nation’s coronavirus pandemic, with more than 128,000 residents diagnosed with COVID-19, including nearly 8,000 who have died; the disease has had a disproportionate effect on African American and Hispanic communities. While these numbers are expected to continue to climb for several months, the impact of the virus on the statewide health care system peaked in mid-April and admissions have since been declining.
Group-living facilities — like nursing homes and prisons — have been particularly hard-hit by COVID-19: The virus spreads easily in close quarters; many residents have underlying conditions that make them more vulnerable to the disease; and staff circulating among patients can transmit the disease even when asymptomatic. An NJ Spotlight analysis found that 17% of the state’s cases and more than one-third of the deaths are tied to residential facilities.
DOH officials first outlined plans nearly two weeks ago for universal testing at the five state-run facilities for individuals with significant developmental disabilities, during a press conference at which Murphy welcomed the Rutgers saliva test; all together, this will cover roughly 5,500 residents and staff. DHS said on Monday this process began last week and will continue until everyone living and working there is screened.
Staffers at the DHS are also working with their counterparts at the health department to determine a testing strategy for other vulnerable populations in other locations, including the roughly 24,000 adults with developmental disabilities who live in privately run group homes that have contracts with the state, according to a spokesman. Staff at these sites will also be tested.
Last week the state announced it would also test New Jersey Transit employees, who are also at high risk for infection given the nature of their jobs; appointments are required but the process is open to all, regardless of symptoms. Prisons have also pledged to expand COVID-19 screenings, but as of early last week only 1/10 of 1% of the inmates and staff had been tested. The Department of Corrections has also struggled to implement an order Murphy signed on April 10 calling for certain low-risk prisoners to be released during the pandemic.
On Monday, Persichilli said the state’s three veterans’ homes — where 327 residents have tested positive for COVID-19 and 112 have died — were also offering universal testing. She also said state officials were working to expand screening at nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, with a focus on those that have the ability to properly separate infected residents from those who have not. (The DOH is also working with Cooper University Health to conduct widespread screening at a select group of 16 nursing homes in South Jersey, she said last week.)
On Thursday, Murphy noted that 358 New Jersey nursing homes would benefit from a separate Trump administration promise to supply them with critical personal protection equipment, or PPE — the gowns, masks and other gear health care workers need to avoid becoming infected. He and Persichilli said the state is also talking to the U.S. National Guard about deploying members to vets homes and nursing facilities to help with nonclinical duties, like food service, family communication and logistics.
Calling in the National Guard
“We’ve been on the phone and working with (military leaders) all weekend and throughout the day, so we hope to have something positive in the next few days,” Persichilli said. “They’ve been more than willing to help out.”
In addition, the DOH has created a task force with leaders at Federally Qualified Health Centers and agricultural officials to develop a strategy for testing the 12,000 to 15,000 migrant workers that play a key role in the state’s farming sector, Persichilli said. “They come every year. They work at the farms in the south,” she said. “We’ll be working with the growers to make sure that we have a full testing and follow-up isolation and quarantine for all these” workers, she added.
The state also plans to deploy mobile testing units to conduct more widespread evaluations in urban areas, where residents are less likely to have cars that allow them to access the multiple drive-through screening centers set up statewide. While a handful of cities, including Camden and Trenton, have implemented some “walk-up” testing, the impact has been limited so far.
“We’re looking at releasing vans into those communities to help with testing. And it would be primarily asymptomatic individuals, first and foremost those that have had contact with a positive COVID-19 patient,” Persichilli said. Staff at DOH and the governor’s office declined to provide additional details Monday on how this would work or what communities would be targeted for testing.