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N.J. postpones tax filing deadlines; Camden testing site opens as coronavirus cases surge in North Jersey

People line up for COVID-19 testing at Holy Name Medical Center in Teaneck, New Jersey, on March 17, 2020. (Jeff Rhode/Holy Name Medical Center)

People line up for COVID-19 testing at Holy Name Medical Center in Teaneck, New Jersey, on March 17, 2020. (Jeff Rhode/Holy Name Medical Center)

Updated: 3:10 p.m.

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy announced 3,649 new COVID-19 cases Wednesday, bringing the state’s total number of cases to 22,255.

The governor also announced 91 new deaths as a result of the illness, increasing the state’s death toll to 355 total fatalities.

‘Surge’ of cases begins in North Jersey

State Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli said during the state’s daily briefing Wednesday that hospitals in North Jersey were beginning to see a surge in coronavirus cases.

Persichilli said seven hospitals were on “divert” status Tuesday night, some due to overcrowded emergency rooms and others due to a high number of patients. Two hospitals requested additional ventilators for their critical coronavirus patients, which she said the state was able to provide.

Persichilli said there was a particular need for critical care beds across the region to treat the most severe coronavirus cases.

“In the northern part of the state we’re beginning to feel the real stress and strain on the critical care complement,” she said.

But it was not a statewide surge, Persichilli said, because hospitals in the central and southern regions of the state were not yet as overburdened with COVID-19 cases as their northern counterparts are.

Gov. Murphy said the state would not know for about another week what effect the extensive social distancing measures he put in place a week ago would have on the health care system and the state’s ability to “flatten the curve” and slow the spread of the virus.

Camden County testing site open

Camden County has opened a new drive-thru coronavirus testing site in the city of Camden as more South Jersey counties prepare for a surge in coronavirus cases akin to what has happened in their northern neighbors.

The site in Cooper’s Poynt Waterfront Park will be open by appointment only to symptomatic Camden County residents with a referral from a health care provider from Monday through Friday, noon to 4 p.m., until April 15.

More ventilators and PPE on their way

The federal government has sent an additional 350 ventilators to New Jersey, which now equals a total of 850 ventilators from the national strategic stockpile since the dawn of the coronavirus outbreak, Murphy said.

The governor said he was thankful for the much-needed breathing aids but added that the state still has an outstanding request of an additional 1,650 ventilators from the Trump administration. Murphy said the state has not been able to buy any ventilators from private vendors.

Murphy also said the state had secured nearly 10 million pieces of personal protective equipment, or PPE, to help frontline health care workers treat coronavirus patients safely — much of it from private donations.

“There is no price too high to save a life,” Murphy said, “and there is no price too high to protect our health care workers and those on the front lines of the battlefield we find ourselves on.”

Persichilli said the state was also successfully using modified anesthesia machines as ventilators, saying they have been “efficacious” in treating coronavirus patients. She said the state has “a lot” of anesthesia machines but did not provide an exact number.

While she said she was confident New Jersey would have enough ventilators to treat the coronavirus patients who needed them, Persichili also anticipated having to shuttle ventilators around the state depending as needs changed across regions.

Tax filing, state budget deadlines extended

In an anticipated move, Gov. Phil Murphy and leaders in New Jersey’s Democrat-controlled legislature have agreed to extend the income tax and corporate business tax filing deadlines from April 15 to July 15.

“The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has caused hardships, financial strain, and disruptions for many New Jerseyans and New Jersey businesses,” Murphy, Senate President Steve Sweeney, and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin said in a joint statement released Wednesday morning.

Last week the Trump administration announced that it would extend the federal tax filing deadline from April 15 to July 15.

Murphy, Sweeney, and Coughlin also announced they would extend the state budget deadline from June 30 to September 30, freeing up additional time for the administration to get a grasp on the coronavirus pandemic during what would have been the height of legislative budget hearings.

Murphy proposed his third state budget in February, a $40 billion spending plan that included the Democrat’s long-sought tax hike on millionaires, a record payment into the state’s public pension system, and increased funding for public education.

ACLU urges Murphy to release more from prisons and jails

The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey is urging Gov. Murphy to release more people from prisons and jails to protect them — and corrections staff — from the further spread of COVID-19.

In a letter sent to Murphy Tuesday, ACLU-NJ Executive Director Amol Sinha noted that four New Jersey correctional officers have already tested positive for the virus and said those living and working behind bars are “are particularly at risk to the spread of coronavirus.”

“New Jersey currently has the opportunity to reduce the likelihood of the tragic outcomes elsewhere, but not without meaningful and prompt executive action,” Sinha wrote.

The ACLU-NJ suggested that Murphy commute the sentences of prisoners who are pregnant or over age 60, grant reprieves to some whose sentences the administration may not want to commute, and release others through medical furloughs or time credits. It also suggested that Murphy direct the state parole board to reconsider parole for those who were denied, whose timelines were extended in the last year, and who are scheduled for consideration in the next 12 months.

The group also said the New Jersey Department of Corrections should release data on COVID-19 cases daily, ensure there are adequate hygiene supplies, end jobs performed by prisoners that cannot meet social distancing requirements and provide adequate personal protective equipment to staff.

Last week the state began releasing from jail some low-level offenders in response to the coronavirus outbreak under an agreement reached by the state Supreme Court, the attorney general, the public defender, and the ACLU-NJ. It did not address all people serving time in jails or contemplate the release of those in state prisons.

Sinha noted in his letter that other states such as New York and Louisiana had already begun to see significant COVID-19 outbreaks behind bars.

2015 pandemic plan warned of ‘catastrophic’ impact

New Jersey updated its influenza pandemic plan in 2015 and predicted that the aftermath of a major outbreak could be “catastrophic” for the state, the Asbury Park Press reported.

Officials at the time suggested that if the state saw a virus similar to the Spanish flu that swept across the world in 1918, one third of the state’s population could become infected, 277,000 residents would require hospitalization, and 5,000 would die.

“Should an influenza pandemic virus again appear that behaves as the 1918 strain, the results could be catastrophic, even when taking into account the remarkable advances in medicine,” the report said.

The plan included steps that the state and county governments have been taking across New Jersey to deal with COVID-19: mass testing, school closures, and social distancing.

But public health experts also told the newspaper that the pandemic plan was flawed. For one, it recommended officials rely on state and federal stockpiles of medical supplies, but those have been woefully inadequate to meet demand. It also laid out a plan for laboratory testing that did not anticipate recently reported delays at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A spokesperson for the state Department of Health told the newspaper it was relying in part on the pandemic plan to guide the state’s response to the coronavirus outbreak.

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