Health Department expects a tough January for COVID-19 cases in Princeton

PHOTO COURTESY OF HACKENSACK MERIDIAN HEALTH

COVID-19 cases continue to surge in Princeton during January as the municipality joins others across the state in navigating the increase in cases.

January is expected to be difficult month for Princeton regarding COVID-19 cases, according to the Princeton Health Department.

“We need to be upfront with public on where we stand,” Health Officer Jeff Grosser said in a presentation to Princeton’s Council on Jan. 10. “Right now the Health Department continues to see cases of COVID-19 increase at a rate that we have yet seen before in the pandemic.”

In the seven days leading up to Jan. 10, the Health Department reported 287 new cases of COVID-19. For a 14-day span as of Jan. 10, 568 confirmed cases had been reported.

Since Dec. 21 and through Jan. 10, the Health Department has observed and investigated 697 cases of COVID-19 in the surge of Omicron variant cases.

“For perspective, Princeton’s first case of COVID-19 was confirmed on March 10, 2020, and it took a year-and-a-half after that first case, which brought us to July 15, 2021, for Princeton to see that many cases,” Grosser said. “This is a super-fast working variant that we have seen explode in terms of COVID-19 infections in our area. This increase shows the contagious nature of the Omicron variant.”

The Mercer County Division of Public Health is assisting the health department with contact tracing, particularly through the surge of cases. Due to the magnitude of recent cases, the New Jersey Department of Health has issued an advisory to local health departments to prioritize those under 18 years of age and those 65 and older.

The Health Department has reallocated its existing contact tracers to vaccine site support. Kathy Korwin, Princeton’s public health nurse, continues to be team lead with new case investigations, according to the Health Department.

“Our case investigations and contact tracing have been prioritized per the Department of Health order for Princeton’s population at greatest risk of severe disease, which incorporates those over the age of 65, especially those living in congregate living sites, along with being asked to assist the schools, especially those under the age of 18 in regards to cluster outbreaks in that population,” Grosser said.

With the increase in cases due to the Omicron variant, Princeton’s Office of Emergency Management (OEM) and Mayor Mark Freda issued an emergency mask mandate. The mandate goes into effect on Jan. 13 at 5 a.m. and will continue until 12 a.m. on Jan. 31.

The mandate states that face coverings will be required in public indoor spaces including restaurants, bars, gymnasiums, dance studios, recreation facilities, retail stores, cafes, supermarkets, convenience stores, places of worship, commercial establishments, salons, barbershops, banks, healthcare facilities, hotels, and government buildings and facilities.

Those exempt from the requirement are people dealing with a medical condition and children under the age of three.

“The expectation is the mask mandate will assist in areas of public places where we have seen spread of COVID-19 and at this point community prevention is really our best effort at trying to slow the rapid infections throughout the rest of the community,” Grosser said. “The mask mandate was put forth to try and slow down the spread of COVID-19.”

Grosser has stressed for people to wear masks that fit and make sure they cover their nose and mouth.

He also suggests that if residents cannot access N95 and KN95 masks that they make masks using other types of material, such as T-shirt type material and light cloth, are more protective.

A mask mandate for outdoors is currently not something that is being discussed.

At the Board of Health meeting on Jan. 11, board member Rick Strauss spotlighted potential confusion regarding an exception to the mask mandate, specifically, for people who are socially distanced at least six feet apart from all others for an extended period of time, in areas such as services at places of worship.

“Sometimes you need a complimentary document to explain what the mandate means to make it more clear. Maybe it needs to be made more clear with the messaging that goes out mainly to businesses that are going to be messaging masking as well,” Grosser said.

“Some of these businesses do require masking inside no matter what, six feet or otherwise, but maybe we need to be more clear in regards to if that is their rule, this does not necessarily trump that if there are exceptions within this particular mandate.”

The Board of Health supports the mask mandate and urged clarification for residents and visitors as to how it will be implemented.