‘Community spread’ suspected as N.J. coronavirus count jumps to 23

A laboratory technician prepares COVID-19 patient samples for semi-automatic testing at Northwell Health Labs, Wednesday, March 11, 2020, in Lake Success, N.Y. (John Minchillo/AP Photo)

A laboratory technician prepares COVID-19 patient samples for semi-automatic testing at Northwell Health Labs, Wednesday, March 11, 2020, in Lake Success, N.Y. (John Minchillo/AP Photo)

As New Jersey’s official coronavirus count increased to 23 on Wednesday, health officials also warned the state may be starting to see “community spread,” which means the illness is being transmitted among the general population.

Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli said two of the people with COVID-19 could not be connected to known coronavirus cases and had not recently traveled to areas with community outbreaks, such as Italy.

“Community spread indicates that the coronavirus is amongst us, and we have an expectation that that may be the case,” Persichilli said.

But Persichilli cautioned that investigators were still conducting contact tracing to discern where the two people contracted the illness, which could take several days.

Of the eight new cases announced Wednesday, four were in Bergen County, two were in Middlesex County, and two were in Monmouth County. They ranged in age from 17 to 66 years old.

Thirty-seven people in New Jersey are under investigation and awaiting testing from state labs, as of Wednesday afternoon. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have not yet returned any specimens sent to the agency for confirmatory testing to the state, nor did they offer an explanation for the delay, state officials said.

Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver also announced during Wednesday’s press briefing that the state would receive $14 million from the CDC to help it deal with the coronavirus outbreak, the same day the World Health Organization declared the spread of the new virus a pandemic.

On Tuesday Gov. Phil Murphy said his administration would allow any state workers diagnosed with COVID-19, or who were exposed to the virus to stay home without using sick time, and state departments were working on plans to designate essential and nonessential employees and create work-from-home policies.

The state is also continuing to crack down on companies that attempted to profit on fear of the coronavirus. Prosecutors charged Wood-Ridge 7-Eleven owner Manisha Bharade with endangering the welfare of a child and deceptive business practices after Bharade allegedly sold illegally-made hand sanitizer that burned the skin of four boys.

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