This story was written and produced by NJ Spotlight. It is being republished under a special NJ News Commons content-sharing agreement related to COVID-19 coverage. To read more, visit njspotlight.com.
New Jersey officials said universal COVID-19 testing has now been completed at a handful of state-run facilities that house vulnerable populations — an initiative they announced on April 23. They are also working with local governments and private entities to expand public access to screenings.
Gov. Phil Murphy also announced Wednesday that Walmart has partnered with Quest Diagnostics to offer limited drive-through access to self-test kits at seven locations starting Friday. Walmart locations in Garfield, North Bergen, Kearny, Flemington, Burlington, Howell and Mt. Laurel will offer the service for two hours in the morning, three days a week; appointments and more information are available at MyQuestCOVIDTest.com.
Multiple CVS and RiteAid drugstores have already promised to offer testing by the end of the month — locations to be announced soon, Murphy said. And on Tuesday, the state empowered all licensed pharmacists to conduct screenings; there are more than 2,200 pharmacies statewide. There are approximately 140 public and private testing sites now operating in New Jersey, the governor noted.
Strong testing key to recovery
“Certainly a strong testing program is one of the foundational principles for our state’s road back to restart and recovery,” Murphy said at his daily press briefing. He reiterated the need to process at least 20,000 tests daily — double the current capacity — to safely reopen more businesses and public spaces. “As I have said, this is a floor and not a ceiling. We’re going to continue to build the partnerships necessary for us to keep building our testing program.
“More testing means more people will know their health status, which creates peace of mind. More testing means more data and more data allows us to take more steps forward,” he added.
With regard to vulnerable populations — which the state has prioritized — New Jersey Department of Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli said Wednesday that all 1,240 patients at the state’s four psychiatric hospitals had now been screened for the novel coronavirus; testing of staff is continuing.
Roughly 1,200 residents and 4,300 staff members have also been tested at the five state-run centers for individuals with significant disabilities, she said. The state is now moving on to screen another 24,000 residents with disabilities who live in nearly 2,000 group homes operated under state contract.
There is also some progress with testing at elder facilities, which have recorded nearly four out of 10 COVID-19 deaths and sparked growing concerns. Two weeks ago the state hired a pair of experts connected with Manatt Health to provide immediate assistance and develop a plan for the future, but has declined to release information on the cost and terms of this contract.
Deaths at long-term care facilities
(Previously the state had reported a mix of lab-confirmed and suspected coronavirus deaths at long-term care facilities that accounted for more than half the total fatalities; it has since removed suspected deaths from this count. Overall, New Jersey has recorded more than 150,000 cases of the novel coronavirus, including nearly 10,800 who have died.)
On Wednesday, Persichilli said the more than 650 residents at the three state-run veterans facilities have also been screened; more than half were found positive for COVID-19 and another 142 have died of the disease. In addition, some 14,000 residents and 42,000 staff at 100 privately run long-term care facilities have completed universal testing, she said, thanks to a partnership the operators formed with local hospitals and academic medical centers.
“Testing is vital to slowing the spread of COVID-19, because if we are able to identify positive cases quickly, we can trace contacts and take the necessary public health actions to protect everyone,” Persichilli said Tuesday. “I want to encourage our healthcare workers, first responders, and all vulnerable populations to get tested. Although you may not have symptoms it is possible to have the virus and spread it to others, including people you love the most.”
But hundreds of other nursing homes and assisted-living programs are still in the process of screening staff and residents, a process that public-health experts insist is critical in order to be able to separate those who are sick and reduce the spread of the virus. Last week the state gave all long-term care facilities until Tuesday to compile testing plans — including repeat tests for those who are negative — and set May 26 as the deadline for the first round.
On Wednesday, Murphy noted that this requirement for universal testing at long-term care sites is actually “federally mandated.” The testing directive Persichilli signed last week refers to guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but staff declined to explain how the state-testing order differs from CDC recommendations, if it does.
Regardless of the plan’s origins, Persichilli said during the Wednesday briefing that 586 of New Jersey’s 678 long-term care facilities — about 86% — met Tuesday’s deadline for having plans in place; by the end of the day, only 44 facilities had failed to comply, officials said. The DOH, which was calling operators who had not filed, said it would post additional details Thursday.
More than a plan needed
A plan is only the first step, however. A saliva-based test developed by Rutgers University has been used by many of the nursing homes that have completed universal screening, officials have said, but it is not clear where other facilities will get the supplies they need to carry out this task. Some have partnered with private lab companies to access test kits, while others appear to be seeking support from the state.
On April 30 Murphy announced that the Trump administration had promised to provide New Jersey with 500,000 test kits and the swabs needed to administer them, but details on these supplies have been hard to get. On Wednesday, Murphy’s staff said that full resources had been delivered for only 110,300 full kits; 90,000 of these went to long-term care facilities, more than 6,000 were provided to psychiatric hospitals and 1,000 went to community health clinics, which have helped to test migrant farmworkers in South Jersey.
State officials have expressed repeated concerns about the 20,000 to 25,000 farmworkers who travel to the Garden State each summer to pick and pack produce and fruit; these individuals live and work in close quarters, enhancing the chances for the virus to spread. Persichilli said Wednesday 600 workers have been tested so far from 16 farms, with 69 positive cases identified. NJ Spotlight has reported — based on information from county and local officials — that roughly 120 employees have already been infected in Salem and Gloucester counties.
Persichelli said she has been talking to mayors in six urban hubs — Elizabeth, Trenton, Camden, Paterson, Atlantic City and Newark — to expand access to testing in inner cities and among homeless populations. On Wednesday she said 19,000 residents have been screened in these communities, including 700 people who are homeless. She also said, “plans are underway” to bring mobile testing to these cities, a concept she first raised publicly two weeks ago.