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Health Department’s Predictive Modeling Shows NJ About To Turn COVID-19 Corner


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flu shotThis 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 COVID-19 diagnoses and hospitalizations could peak within days in New Jersey before beginning a gradual, months-long decline, according to state predictive modeling that also indicates 70% of eligible residents could be immunized by June 1, allowing for significant community protection against the pandemic.

State health officials were quick to explain that the immunization timeline is heavily dependent on federal supply of vaccines and the June 1 target assumes that the single-dose Johnson & Johnson serum not yet approved by federal regulators is available in March. Until then, the vaccine rollout will have limited impact on infection trends, the model notes.

The state Department of Health predictions — from a model developed by the University of Pennsylvania that has proved accurate in the past — indicate that daily coronavirus testing numbers and related hospitalizations could reach an apex this Sunday, Jan. 24. Based on various scenarios, the state anticipates between 6,000 and 7,000 cases will be detected that day and 3,800 to 4,700 coronavirus patients will be hospitalized.

Have fatalities peaked?

On Wednesday the DOH reported some 5,800 new COVID-19 cases, detected by both the standard PCR (nose-swab) and the newer antibody tests. The state reported nearly 3,600 hospitalizations and 122 lab-confirmed deaths. Tracking these data points over time shows daily death numbers appear to have peaked at 175 fatalities on Dec. 30. The number of deaths is now ticking downward. Hospitalizations seem to have leveled off since mid-December, and new cases were trending upward until recently, reaching a high point of nearly 7,000 new diagnoses on Jan. 13 before starting to decline.

Gov. Phil Murphy hinted at this positive trend during his regular media briefing Tuesday, when he suggested modeling showed the state was approaching a turning point and noted we were now more than two weeks past the most recent holiday, which might have given rise to a spike in the disease.

“You combine hopefully a peak with more vaccine supplies,” Murphy said, noting the state was working to expand the number of immunization sites and reiterating his plea to federal officials for more doses. “Of course, we are still not anywhere near in the clear yet,” he added, reminding people to continue to stay socially distanced and to mask up.

Murphy also expressed relief Tuesday that hospitals have not been overwhelmed, as nearly happened last spring when the demand for clinical-care resources came close to outpacing supply. “Overall, we are seeing a decent measure of stability across our hospital systems,” he said. “While we continue to hold our breath a little bit, this stability is a good sign.”

The state predictions align with those of the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, a respected source of coronavirus modeling. According to the IMHE model, New Jersey passed the peak level of new COVID-19 infections nearly a week ago and could experience the highest hospitalization numbers – nearly 5,000 patients — on Jan. 29.

Accurately predicting the peak

While both IMHE and state models significantly overestimated the likely patient surge at the start of the pandemic, they were highly accurate on the timing of that initial peak, which coincided with Easter weekend. At that point New Jersey’s 71 acute-care hospitals were treating more than 7,600 patients, including 1,700 in critical care — almost all of whom were on ventilators.

The impact of COVID-19 on New Jersey — in terms of cases, hospitalizations and deaths — declined from there and remained relatively minimal over the summer. But by October, the data indicated the virus was spreading again and health officials predicted a bleak winter.

Since the first cases were detected here in March, more than 641,000 coronavirus cases have been detected in New Jersey, at least 55,000 patients have been hospitalized with the virus and some 20,600 people have died, according to state data. IMHE predicts the state will record more than 25,000 fatalities by May; state modeling indicates that, after Jan. 24, new cases and hospitalizations will decline steadily through June, at which point new cases and hospitalizations could be as low as 1,000 each per day.

News of a vaccine, the first of which was approved for emergency use in late November, has provided hope and prompted predictions of quicker recovery. But supply chain delays and complex logistics have resulted in a relatively slow pace of immunizations.

New Jersey officials have set a goal of vaccinating 70% of the eligible population, about 4.7 million people, within six months. Some 421,000 doses have been administered so far, less than half of the vaccines DOH officials said the state has received from the federal government.

There are now two government-approved vaccines in use, by drugmakers Pfizer and Moderna, both of which require two shots several weeks apart; Pfizer’s product also depends on deep-freeze technology to keep it fresh. The Johnson & Johnson version is one of several products now in final trials and public health leaders are hoping it will get the federal OK soon.

“Listen, if Johnson & Johnson comes through, that’s a game changer, period,” Murphy said Tuesday. While it is not clear how many doses would be shipped to New Jersey and how quickly, Murphy appeared to remain optimistic. “I still believe we’re in a dramatically different place on Memorial Day. I’ve said that now a number of times. I can’t guarantee you that we’ve gotten 4.7 million people with shots in their arms, but we’re in a dramatically different and better place.”

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