FLEMINGTON, NJ - Hunterdon County Health Officer and Director of the County Health Department Karen DeMarco said this week that, across New Jersey, positive cases of COVID-19 are steadily on the rise and the state has moved to the moderate level, from a “Green” field with low case counts to “Yellow.”
In Hunterdon County, DeMarco said in her update to the Board of Chosen Freeholders Oct. 20, the number of positive cases reported has climbed “considerably higher” during the last month, compared with July and August.”
In both New Jersey and Hunterdon County, the rate of transmission is above 1 percent, and, within the last month, the county health department has had positive COVID-19 case reports (and subsequent contact-tracing) within area school communities. DeMarco said that among school districts in Hunterdon County and across the Garden State, an observation has been made that while schools with in-person learning and hybrid formats are carrying forward, “extracurricular activities, youth sports and parties are sources of community COVID-19 spread,” which isn’t correlated to in-person learning in the schools.
DeMarco said health departments across the U.S. are reporting increases for daily positive COVID-19 case numbers and hospital admissions, and “outbreaks in clusters are occurring in the community and in long-term care facilities in Hunterdon County and the State of New Jersey.”
“Fortunately, the majority of cases have not developed as a result of student or faculty participation within a school setting,” she said. “In some instances, very few people within a school were recommended to quarantine for 14 days after contact tracing. School districts within Hunterdon County have continued altering scheduling to limit the number of total students within the schools and to ensure physical distancing, as well as requiring masks for all students and staff. In accordance with recommendations from the State Health Department and State Department of Education, local schools are creating classrooms with a 6-foot distance between the desks of each student and eliminating large group meal times and other activities that bring students together in groups for long periods of time.”
“These measures for safety in our school settings are critical to preventing the spread of COVID-19 within the schools community,” she added. “Without that distancing, one case within a school may result in dozens exposed to infection potential and being forced to quarantine for 14 days.”
Also this week, during the Hunterdon Central Regional board of education meeting Oct. 19, Superintendent Jeffrey Moore shared the high school district experiences with COVID-19 and the noted uptick around the county, state and U.S. since September. He thanked DeMarco’s team at the Hunterdon County Department of Health for being proactive and completing fast, accurate contact tracing protocols, as well as their advice to his district, noting “they are incredibly skilled folks, and we rely on their recommendations and guidance as public health nurses and epidemiologists.”
As of Oct. 19, Moore said, there was no evidence of COVID-19 spread within HCRHS. He said cases that were confirmed among students can be attributed to a lack of compliance with wearing masks and physical distancing.
Moore said it is important that the district remains open for in-person, real-time classroom instruction “as long as we can and that we can continue what we’re doing to bring students to campus.”
Moore said Hunterdon Central has been fortunate to not have had the recommendations to close for any extended period. Weeks ago, one day had been recommended for HCRHS to take a remote day because of contact tracing that needed to take place from one positive case.
“That was largely a result of the timing of the case more than anything else,” Moore said.
“We have not yet received a recommendation to go fully remote, though I have seen other school districts adopt a full-remote program when they have had positive cases,” he said. “The Health Department guidelines do include notation on a chart including that in certain scenarios, closure due to a small number of unrelated COVID-positive cases could be recommended by the DOH. That’s not a rule and certainly not a one-size-fits-all recommendation. Everything is case-by-case and contextual. But if we do not take precautions in public, and if we do not take all the precautions that we take in schools everywhere else, when we are in other public places, we will lose opportunities to be together in school. If we are not careful in all corners of our community then our community will see consequences of spread and potentially lockdown. This is my concern.”
Moore said that, as the weather turns colder, the concerns turn to the indoor living and gatherings, and precautions at every level to avoid situations that can contribute to the spread of COVID-19.
Also during the Oct. 19 district meeting, the board of education approved receipt of a $105,544 Coronavirus Relief Fund grant award to cover expenses associated with the reopening of the high school during the pandemic.
The board of education also approved a “Restart and Recovery Plan” policy on Monday to be in compliance with Gov. Phil Murphy’s executive orders involving criteria for the school to go fully remote for all students. This is not a new policy but it covers parameters if the high school were unable to meet minimum safety standards, Moore said.
Moore noted it is not a new version of the 2020-2021 Restart Plan, and they are continuing to have in-person learning because HCRHS meets all minimum standards it must comply with.
“As we move forward, everybody does their part to continue to help stem the spread of this disease,” he said. "As our (national) medical community marches us closer towards a solution, cure or vaccine, we are looking forward to the moment we come back together and do normal things.”
The district also discussed expanding in-person and on-campus HCRHS club activities as October winds down.
“I will talk more with the school board about the green light we have received for winter sports, as there is still some guidance we have to get,” Moore said. “We are looking forward to student clubs being more active on campus. Big, open spaces used by our basketball teams or some other big student organizations are much easier to clean than some of the smaller spaces our other clubs operate in, within classrooms. We may have to be creative about where student club meetings take place and what that will look like to ensure we can keep it sanitized properly and up and running for the next day of school.”
School board president Vincent Panico said there was originally a plan to hold the October meeting in-person, but the school district must limit the gathering size to no more than a 25-attendee maximum. With nine school board members, plus Moore, business administrator Gymlyn Corbin and several other administrative staff on-hand for board meetings, very few community members will be able to attend in-person if the Nov. 9 and Nov. 16 meetings do take place on-campus.
Announcements will be made on the district website well prior to each meeting next month.
At this week’s freeholder board meeting, Freeholder Zach Rich echoed some of Moore’s praise for the Hunterdon County Health Department, and commended the efforts of DeMarco and the entire staff.
“I recognize the exceptional performance of our county’s Health Department, the director, the nurses, contact tracers and the entire team,” he said. “They have faced enormous pressure to perform throughout the year, but they continue to provide A-1 level performance. Hunterdon County has one of the lowest rates of COVID-19 infection in New Jersey, around 11,000 contact-tracing contacts and joint testing sites. first in the spring with Somerset County at RVCC and now with Hunterdon Medical Center. We’ve seen county health expand COVID-19 testing availability, and now with the state’s approval of the County Health Testing plan, they attained an additional $331,000 in grant funds from the New Jersey Department of Health to continue tackling the pandemic, and there’s many other successes. Thank you from not just myself and our board, but from all the people of Hunterdon County.”