N.J. coronavirus update: No mask mandate for schools in the fall

Students settle in at their desks

Students settle in at their desks for their first day of in-person learning in more than a year at H.B. Wilson Elementary School in Camden, N.J. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

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New Jersey officials reported an additional 434 COVID-19 cases on Monday, bringing the state’s overall case total to 1,029,243. About 15% of the case total includes results from antigen tests. The rate of transmission is at 1.37.

As of 10 p.m. Sunday, there were 338 COVID-related hospitalizations; 58 patients are in intensive care, 29 are using ventilators.

The state also reported four more deaths, raising the total mortality count to 23,827. Officials are investigating 2,718 probable deaths from the virus.

Murphy to stick with mask-optional fall despite recommendation

Despite the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendation that anyone above the age of two wear a mask — regardless of vaccination status — Gov. Phil Murphy says he is “comfortable” in sticking to his decision to not require them for schools this fall.

In updated guidance for reopening schools released Monday, the academy said it recommends universal masking because “a significant portion of the student population” do not qualify for vaccines yet. Gov. Murphy announced in late June that the state would not issue a mask mandate for schools so long as there are no serious changes in the pandemic.

In explaining his decision, Murphy noted that the academy makes recommendations through a national lens.

“They’re trying to encompass everybody from Vermont and New Jersey and Connecticut on the one hand, all the way over to Missouri, Alabama – other less-vaccinated places on the other hand,” he said.

Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli echoed the governor’s comments on what the academy, as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, bases their recommendations on. She added that both entities suggest a layered approach to prevention strategies.

“Not one activity is the end-all and be-all,” Persichilli said, “It’s testing, quarantining, cleaning, disinfecting, distancing, hygiene practices.”

The recommendation, and the governor’s response, come as the highly transmissible delta variant is driving an increase in cases nationally among unvaccinated people, including children.

“It is expected that this variant will cause increasing cases among children who cannot be vaccinated, including severe cases,” Persichilli said.

Persichilli referred to news reports from Alabama and Mississippi where children are being hospitalized for COVID. In Alabama, officials said nine children are in the hospital, according to AL.com, with one child on a ventilator. A Mississippi official tweeted that seven children are hospitalized, including two on ventilators, according to Mississippi Today.

In the Garden State, cases among children under 12 are increasing in line with the overall increase in cases, the commissioner said. Case rates have increased 29% for those four and under, 15% for those ages 5-10 and 36% for those 11-13. Persichilli called the numbers troubling because those under 12 cannot be vaccinated yet. Only the Pfizer vaccine is available for ages 12-15 in the U.S.

The commissioner said vaccinations among those ages 12 to 17 need to be “strong,” especially as that group is often with unvaccinated kids under 12 at camp and when they return to school in the fall.

State officials also emphasized the importance of getting vaccinated as they provided an update on breakthrough cases. Breakthrough cases are COVID-19 cases among people who are already fully vaccinated against the virus.

The data about breakthrough cases that the state shared covers through June 28. Out of 4,432,769 fully vaccinated individuals, 3,474 tested positive for COVID-19, 84 required hospitalization and 31 died from the virus. State data also showed that the available vaccines – Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson – were at least 99% effective against getting infected, severe illness, and death.

Murphy said, “these numbers speak for themselves.”

“They speak volumes as to why everyone ages 12 and up, who is eligible, should go and get vaccinated,” he added.

That point was later underscored by Dr. Ed Lifshitz, medical director of the New Jersey Health Department, who said that getting vaccinated would also protect those who might have underlying medical conditions or other issues.

“People who are immuno-suppressed are not able to mount a strong immune response to things such as vaccine” he said. “So they don’t, in general, tend to be as well-protected as other individuals are.”

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