HUNTERDON COUNTY, NJ - A jump in the past week from no deaths in Hunterdon County due to the coronavirus pandemic as of April 2 to five deaths by the time of the April 7 meeting of the Board of Chosen Freeholders led to several actions and emergency response items being detailed by Office of Emergency Management.
Hunterdon County Freeholder Director Shaun C. Van Doren explained that Hunterdon County will not release personal information in the case of the recent deaths, out of respect for the privacy of the families involved. For the first three deaths reported by Monday, the county’s website stated that each person was over 70 with prior existing medical ailments.
“We express our most heartfelt condolences to the families of the deceased,” Van Doren said. “As we face this unprecedented crisis, Hunterdon County continues to act to help and protect our residents and to press state and federal officials to provide the needed resources.”
The State of New Jersey Office of Emergency Management (OEM) is providing 19 ventilators to Hunterdon Medical Center, in Flemington, Van Doren said.
Freeholder Zach Rich said that Hunterdon Medical Center has seen more emergency room visits and admissions to the hospital than ever before. He explained the coordinated efforts of county government relating to operations at the medical center, with the county contributing over $145,000 in resources – 3,000 n95 face masks, 65,100 surgical masks and 30 face shields for use by HMC staff.
“Additionally, as a result of the county’s request to the New Jersey State OEM, Hunterdon Medical Center (HMC) received over 6,000 n95 masks, 1,500 surgical masks, 288 faceshields, over 7,000 pairs of gloves and nearly 300 protective gowns,” Rich said.
The county Office of Emergency Management (OEM) and its health department have distributed over 110,000 pieces of PPE, personal protective equipment, to volunteer rescue squad responders, hospitals, long-term care facilities and other medical providers in the county. Following a March 16 request by county OEM to the state and federal government for over 64,000 pieces of PPE, on April 3 the county heard from State OEM that 25,000 surgical masks and 7,240 n95 masks, as well as eye protection and gloves, were being delivered to the county’s repository.
Hunterdon also authorized the purchase of more face shields, masks, gloves and other safety equipment to supplement resources already distributed.
On April 3, HMC opened its planned Respiratory Assessment Center. Rich explained that this temporary facility is not a COVID-19 testing site, but it is designed to alleviate flow into the emergency room.
“To support the Respiratory Assessment Center logistically, Hunterdon County has also provided 42 privacy screens, 20 IV rods, four variable message board sign trailers and one alternate care site trailer equipped with 20 plastic folding tables and folding chairs, as well as 20 cots with mattresses, 20 electrical lamps plus all the needed electrical supply to go with all that,” he said.
United Bank donated a tent for the new Respiratory Assessment Center. Freeholder Rich spoke about how the volunteers from the Hunterdon County OEMs CERT, the Community Emergency Response Team (a supplemental unit) organized and are now working to provide traffic safety assistance at the tent operations at HMC.
On a daily basis, the county’s health department and OEM staff are in contact with Hunterdon Medical Center, as well as other medical care providers in the county.
County health officer Karen DeMarco noted the 255 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and five deaths in Hunterdon County. She said that as a preventative measure and to help “flatten the curve,” the health department’s public health nurses are working 24/7 to conduct contact investigations for the reported cases, as well as investigating outbreaks or clusters of illnesses.
“Individuals throughout Hunterdon County are currently placed in self-quarantine as a result of those investigations after they have had close contact with a confirmed case,” DeMarco said. “This is an important measure to be taken to control the spread of COVID-19 throughout the county, so those individuals stay in self-quarantine and limit their contact with other individuals. The number of confirmed cases does not provide us with a complete picture of the impact of COVID-19 on our community or the number that are ill. Many who are infected are experiencing mild illness and are recovering at home.”
She added that the increase in both HMC emergency visits and admissions is important to note “as we start to see what the impact of the COVID-19 public health emergency is on all different areas of Hunterdon County.”
DeMarco says the ER admissions exceed what’s normal for this time of year by far, and there are other indications being tracked daily.
“Admissions also indicate the severity of illness that can result from COVID-19 infection,” she said. “And compared with March 2019, we are seeing almost double the amount of EMS calls to Hunterdon County 911 for respiratory illness.”
Deputy director Sue Soloway acknowledged the dedication of the county’s public health nurses as part of the Hunterdon County Health Department, saying that the nurses are proving to be up to the challenges spurred by the pandemic.
“The entire public nursing crew is under constant pressure as they’re engaged in contact tracing for every positive COVID-19 case that is identified in the county,” she said. “They’re also managing an unending stream of phone calls from the public seeking guidance and information. But our staff is maintaining its composure while dealing with the many, sometimes distraught, residents. It is an understatement to say this is not an easy time for them and my heart goes out to them for the tremendous job they are doing.”
DeMarco urged residents to stay at home at all times other than essential needs such as grocery, food and pharmacy pick-ups.
“One person’s mild COVID symptoms could spread illness to someone who develops a much more severe illness,” DeMarco said.
Due to too low of a population, Hunterdon County will not receive direct aid from the $2 trillion federal stimulus bill (CARES, Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act) approved last week.
“County residents and the freeholder board were disappointed to learn that under the new federal stimulus package, the county’s population is too small to qualify for direct aid to the county government,” Van Doren said. “The U.S. Senate added the population limit restrictions to control how and where the money was to be spent. In writing to our federal representatives, I wrote that coronavirus does not respect county borders and every individual matters, we’re facing this crisis wherever we live. My letter amplified the need that small population counties, our own and three others in New Jersey that were shut out from direct federal aid, be made a priority if there’s another Stimulus Bill, which everyone believes there will be.”
Van Doren said he recently received a call from Rep. Tom Malinowski regarding his letter.
“He is working to fix that in the next round of federal legislation and make up for what we and other counties were excluded from,” Van Doren said.