FLEMINGTON, NJ - The Hunterdon County Board of Chosen Freeholders approved a Public Health Action Plan with precautions and new protocols for county operations, as well as the latest data tracking the spread of novel coronavirus in the state.
Hunterdon County Health Officer Karen DeMarco updated the freeholder board and meeting attendees with the latest information tracking COVID-19 across the state and in western Central Jersey. DeMarco said that, as of Tuesday afternoon, there were 267 confirmed cases in New Jersey, but that total had spiked to 427 cases by 6 p.m. Wednesday.
As of Wednesday, there were six confirmed cases of COVID-19 reported in Hunterdon County, including a patient who tested positive at Hunterdon Medical Center in Flemington.
“The State Commissioner of Health Judith Persichilli recently announced that of the reported cases (267), about 85 percent of them had been mild to moderate cases with regards to symptomatology,” DeMarco said.
So 15 percent of cases have been hospitalized at some point, but DeMarco said that, of the approximately 190,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus throughout the world, about 4,000 have been identified in the United States. In New York, the statewide tally of COVID-19 cases has reached more than 1,650 people, with over 1,000 cases confirmed in New York City and the death toll climbing.
Testing for coronavirus within the county remains limited, and DeMarco explained the approaches and prioritization of testing kits, in order to identify where transmission could occur.
“As you have all seen with this rapidly evolving situation, I can provide an update on what’s happening locally as we coordinate to respond and help mitigate the effects of COVID-19 here in Hunterdon County,” she said. “We are receiving reports on the number of local cases from both commercial labs and the public health environmental lab in Trenton. Our health department is conducting case investigations and directly notifying any individuals who had close contact with the first four confirmed cases.”
“Close contact is defined as 10 minutes or more within three to six feet of an individual, and testing that we are doing comes from the two different sources,” she added. “Public health environmental lab testing is stringent criteria for those individuals who have had a travel history, contact with a confirmed COVID-19 case or are hospitalized and negative for other diagnosis. Commercial lab tests are available, but physicians are being urged to hold those mainly for health care personnel, as it is very important that we identify any healthcare personnel who may have been exposed, or those who are medically fragile.”
DeMarco directed community members to visit the Hunterdon County coronavirus website for more details, health information and updates, “including any recent changes announced by Gov. (Phil) Murphy.”
With the action plan approved by the freeholders, Hunterdon County Administrator Kevin Davis was authorized to implement a telecommuting program for eligible or essential county employees as part of the ongoing public health emergency which may prevent employees from accessing their assigned workspaces.
The administrator is authorized to assign different locations and workspaces if necessary, temporarily, and to reassign county employees as needed due to the public health emergency, as well as alternative work schedules. The county chief financial officer has the authority to make emergency expenditures in response to the public emergency.
County employees’ travel for business and attendance at all conferences, functions and meetings is suspended through April 22.
If any county employee is diagnosed with COVID-19 and is directed to or chooses to self-quarantine, they are required to provide documentation verifying the diagnosis to the county Department of Human Resources within three days of their initial absence from work. Davis said that, in addition, there are provisions in the resolution allowing for county employees to take leave time in order to care for their children while schools are not in-session with emergency closures.
Freeholder John Lanza said that if any person, organization or company has business to transact and if there are items required to drop off, the convenience is in place for phone calls or emails to all county offices with the ability to make an appointment.
Freeholder Matt Holt expanded on that, noting how all county functions, services and responsibilities to the public will continue taking place.
“Operations are potentially being altered in how they are delivered, but the new measures taken are not about not delivering our functions,” he said. “Our team at the county is committed to ensuring delivery of all services and functions. What is necessary to be done will be done. There may be a difference in how things are done such as over the phone or electronically, but we remain open and Hunterdon County is operational, fully-functional and serving the public. All of our employees are committed to that.”
County departmental meetings such as the planning board are cancelled through at least the end of March, and departments were directed to comply with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidance and cancel all public gatherings of more than 50 individuals and “o use telecommunications where possible and appropriate for any public meetings.
Davis said that if any governmental meeting is scheduled, arrangements for public participation will be noticed online.
“Several steps are taken so that we can operate county government as effectively as possible,” he said. “Right now, any physical meetings have been cancelled, and we’re potentially going to plan call-in meetings. When the planning board or the county library commission and other bodies meet, their dates, times and ways to participate will be advertised.”
County counsel Shana L. Taylor explained that any make-up or special meetings not put on the annual county meetings public notice will be properly advertised.
The freeholder board also approved the temporary appointment of Stephanie Beach in the position of public health representative 2/communicable disease, in the County Department of Health’s Office of Public Health Nursing, with a base salary of $34,164 for 35 hours a week.
Due to the Northeast U.S. experiencing one of its mildest winters on record, with virtually no snow accumulated and snow removal and plowing funds remaining mostly unused, Hunterdon County freeholders approved a resolution converting funds from a reserve that has approximately $750,000 in it and was originally intended for snow removal services.
The funds, which are available in perpetuity, will now be placed into a fund for protection of public health and safety.
“If we had a heavier snowfall one year, it was set up that we would have adequate appropriations, and later on, after Superstorm Sandy, the state allowed snow removal funds to be utilized for storm recovery efforts,” county CFO Janet Previte said.
Stated in the resolution for use of snow reserve funds, in November 2012 Hunterdon County sought and obtained approval from the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs’ Division of Local Government Services for the creation of the snow removal reserve. It was amended in 2014 and expanded from a snow removal reserve to a storm recovery reserve fund.
The Division of Local Government Services reminded county and local municipal governments this week that this use of reserves was permissible.
County Freeholder Director Shaun C. Van Doren thanked DeMarco for her round-the-clock dedication, professionalism and calmness during the coronavirus pandemic and daily track of local cases.
“I signed a Declaration of Emergency for the county that provides our OEM coordinator with significant authority to request support from the state and federal governments, and direct the emergency resources of Hunterdon County, local emergency management leaders and local first responders among other emergency authorities,” he said.
“I thank everyone for their willingness to pull together as Hunterdon County, New Jersey and our nation meets this unprecedented challenge,” he added. “I must say that unfortunately this is probably going to get worse before it gets better. That is the expectation that we are hearing, all the way up to the president, and we take things on a day-by-day basis.”