Hospitalizations rise amid no mask mandates

COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are rising once again in New Jersey following Easter and Passover gatherings and a busy spring break travel season, some of which occurred without a federal mask mandate. 

The numbers are above “moderate” projections that had been issued by the state Department of Health in mid-April, but hospitalizations fall far short of the agency’s worst-case scenario.

Public health officials said that while the virus’ BA.2 variant continues to spread rapidly this spring, it’s not causing anywhere near the severe outcomes that the delta and omicron variants did in the past year.

But the possibility of BA.2 morphing into another variant poses a threat and makes predictions — no matter how rooted in science — difficult.  

“As long as COVID circulates, it’s still a risk,” said Dr. Jerry Zuckerman, vice president of infection prevention and control at Hackensack Meridian Health. “The two unknowns are, one, is the virus going to continue to evolve allowing new variants to emerge that are different from what we’ve seen? And two, how long will our immunity last with vaccine or prior infection?”

State Department of Health officials are finalizing their newest COVID modeling forecasts and were not available Thursday to comment on the current state of the virus. 

COVID numbers were expected to rise after the spring holidays as well as the height of the travel season. 

Most airlines dropped their mask requirement on April 19, a day after a federal judge voided a federal mandate. While some cheered it as the end of excessive government intervention, many public health experts said the public was losing an effective tool in fighting COVID’s spread at a time when air travel is expected to break records. 

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In New Jersey, COVID hospitalizations have been steadily rising since early April, reaching 604 on Wednesday night. That’s a 56% increase from the 388 hospitalizations reported on April 4.

Hospitalizations have surpassed the 455 that had been forecast in the state’s moderate scenario, but have not come close to the high forecast of 1,204 predicted for May 7.

Intensive care admissions and ventilator use among patients have also increased over the past month and were at 72 and 32, respectively, on Wednesday night. That’s still far less than what the state’s worst-case model had forecast. 

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Newly reported positive cases have been ranging from 2,000 to more than 3,000 daily — about two to four times what New Jersey was tallying in mid-March when cases dipped to their lowest since the omicron surge that began in December. 

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Department of Health models had daily cases reaching 910 by April 27 under a moderate scenario and 3,854 by May 7 under a high scenario. Cases are much closer to the high number. There were 3,479 cases reported Thursday, state data shows. 

Zuckerman said he is seeing a very similar situation at his network’s 17 hospitals from Bergen to Ocean counties. COVID patients are coming in with mild symptoms and few require admission.

BA.2 is a subvariant of omicron. Because so many people were infected at the height of the omicron surge in December and January, there is a considerable immunity built up in the state’s population. 

“Omicron was like having a new virus hit us,” Zuckerman said. “That’s not the case here. Thankfully, we have not seen an increase in the severity of the disease. It’s on a different trajectory for now.”

Scott Fallon has covered the COVID-19 pandemic since its onset in March 2020. To get unlimited access to the latest news about the pandemic’s impact on New Jersey,  please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

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