PATERSON, NJ – The question of how long Paterson will remain shut down in an effort to curtail the spread of COVID-19 is not “about a date,” Mayor Andre Sayegh told TAPinto Paterson. “It’s about the data. Everyone asks about a date and I tell them ‘Oh no, it’s about the data,” Sayegh, whose city has been hit especially hard by the virus, said.

Paterson, New Jersey’s third largest city, is among the state’s top 10 municipalities with the highest infection rates. As of  Friday there were nearly 80,000 confirmed coronavirus cases across the state, 2,566 of them in Paterson. 

Among those cases: several city police officers, firefighters, Passaic County Jail corrections officers and Dr. James Pruden, St. Joseph Regional Medical Center’s director of medical preparedness, who has since recovered.

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The virus has claimed 63 lives locally, including 34-year-old Paterson Police Officer Francesco Scorpo, who died Sunday, and Paterson “legend” Ed Cotton who lost his life in the early hours of Friday, both due to COVID-19-related complications.

“We have to be wise and focus on science,” said Sayegh, who was also diagnosed with coronavirus and is in his second week of self-isolation at home. 

On Wednesday, the mayor said officials are tracking everything, including the volume of virus-related EMS calls, coronavirus patient admissions, hospital bed rates, local intensive care unit capacities, recovered patient rates and how many tests are being performed.

A return to life like it was before March 16 – when Sayegh issued an order effectively shutting down Paterson except for non-essential business operations – has “to be logical and thought out,” he said. 

Over the past month, Sayegh said “it hasn’t been easy getting acclimated” to the new normal in the city. Schools are closed, most businesses are shut, parks are inaccessible,  and people are being urged to distance from each other to prevent the spread of the virus.

And, city officials have been busy – enforcing orders that have come with the state of emergency, urging residents to stay home, coordinating with state and federal government regarding resources and support and trying to keep the public as informed as possible.

“The rules of society are being rewritten,” Sayegh said.  “So, there are going to be some adjustment pains.”

Suiting Up for The Fight

With 148,000 people living across the city’s eight-square-mile radius, Paterson is vulnerable for a few reasons, officials said. “We’re such a compact city and that density does work against us. We have multiple people in dwellings, which poses a problem. If one person is infected, then it could spread,” Sayegh offered.

Growing research has shown minorities and low-income families are more likely to bear the brunt of the COVID-19 outbreak. Minorities are more likely to have underlying health issues, such as heart disease and diabetes, that make coronavirus infections more severe. 

And, lower-income communities tend to have less access to, and a lower quality of, medical care than wealthier areas. Workers in lower paying jobs are also less likely to have health insurance or be able to work from home during the pandemic. 

Another factor: the majority of residents rely upon public transportation. It was only last week Murphy ordered NJ Transit to cut all ridership capacity by half and require passengers and transit workers to cover their faces while on board. 

But, officials say Paterson is well-armed for the fight.

“The worst of times brings out the best in people. I’m really encouraged by our first responders and how they are conducting themselves on the front line,” Sayegh said. 

There are also many other people on the frontline helping Paterson through the pandemic, the mayor said. Every healthcare worker, grocery store clerk, funeral home director and other essential workers on the job right now are “a profile in courage,” he said. 

Sayegh said he believes his administration was prepared for the crisis and he knows the fire department was “definitely prepared,” thanks to the efforts of Fire Chief Brian McDermott.

“We’re hearing a lot nowadays about PPE shortages. We have not had that problem at all in Paterson,” Sayegh said. “And, late last year, we formed a strike force for communicable diseases. Part of what we’ve learned with outbreaks of meningitis and hepatitis is that we can never be prepared enough.”

Well before COVID-19 arrived in the U.S., McDermott was already planning for the worst. Back in 2014, McDermott was serving as Paterson’s Deputy Fire Chief when New Jersey had its Ebola scare.

“I saw the potential for what could happen then and I wanted to be prepared for the next one,” McDermott said. “In January, after seeing what was going on in China, we said ‘This looks ugly,’” he added. “And then, we ramped it up from there. We did a lot of preparation and it was a group effort.”

McDermott, along with Deputy Fire Chief Matthew Hyman and other fire officers, began inventorying the city’s critical safety gear and then ordered even more to ensure there was more than enough to protect the department’s 275 members. That exercise, McDermott added, also included a desire to protect the city’s most vulnerable populations from coronavirus including sharing its supplies with police, shelter workers and elderly residents at senior homes and local housing developments.

It also recently donated 15,000 surgical masks, 1,000 N95 masks, “tons” of gloves, 500 digital thermometers and 100 disposable stethoscopes to St. Joseph’s Medical Center. 

Over at the hospital, healthcare workers are currently treating 280 patients with coronavirus.

Pamela Garretson, a hospital spokeswoman, also said, “Our staff is equipped with PPE as we continue to work in conjunction with the state Department of Health regarding supplies.”

Earlier this month, St. Joseph’s announced plans to utilize space at Barnert Medical Arts Complex for patients that require hospitalization. Altogether, 110 acute care beds will be available by mid-April at the facility, which will allow the hospital to convert medical units at its Paterson and Wayne campuses into critical care beds. 

Transforming the space came after State Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli requested hospitals across the state look into ways to help absorb the surge of COVID-19 patients.

‘Reopening’ Must Be Done Carefully

Since Paterson’s first three positive cases were reported on March 16, the number has steadily ticked up. But officials said recent data offers a glimmer of hope.

Initially, the city’s Chief Data Officer, Harsha Mallajosyula, projected by April 15 the city would have around 8,000 cases. As of Wednesday, Paterson’s confirmed case less than half of that. 

Officials believe social distancing efforts may be starting to pay off a bit, but they noted Paterson still has a way to go before life can regain some sense of normalcy.

McDermott said he believes continued efforts to educate the public about the virus is also helping. 

“The city has done a fantastic job in multiple languages to get information out there. We have 60-plus nationalities here – Paterson is a true melting pot, which is a point of pride, but it brings about challenges,” he said. “I can say in all sincerity under this mayor, we have someone doing everything possible to be as informative as he can possibly be.”

“The hardest part,” the fire chief said, “Is that by the time the message gets out there, the information has changed and guidelines and recommendations have been updated by the state, the health department, the federal government or the CDC.”

Outreach has also led to a slight decrease in the number of daily calls the fire department responds to, McDermott said.

On average, firefighters, who are certified as emergency medical technicians, handle between 40 to 45 COVID-19-related calls each day. About a week ago, that number was around 60 calls a day, he said.

“It’s down a bit,” he said. “But that’s still on top of our regular calls for things like shootings and accidents, which is about 100 calls a day.” At the onset of the pandemic, they fielded a lot of “panic stricken calls,” which drove the daily call volume into the 180 range, he said.

“It is very understandable why people are concerned. Back then, people weren’t as informed about the virus. Now, people are more educated, which is good because it has reduced the strain and call volume,” he said.

“We are also getting less calls involving DOAs,” he said. “Some days there’s just one or two, or none. At our peak, we had seven fatalities in one day.”

McDermott is keeping an eye out for a decline in call volume from individuals infected with coronavirus. 

“Our number doesn’t fully tell the tale,” McDermott said, adding there’s many other benchmarks – like hospital admissions and doctor’s office visits - to consider in terms of whether the virus is easing its grip on the city. 

‘When Can We Go Back?’

“We understand our small businesses are suffering,” Sayegh said. But “reopening our economy” has to be done carefully, he suggested. “The analogy I have been using is that it’s like turning on a faucet, you do it gingerly and if we see things might erupt again, we turn the faucet back off.”

Paterson’s economic community includes about 1,000 businesses in its Urban Enterprise Zones and Downtown Special Improvement District, according to the city’s Director of Economic Development Mike Powell.

Right now, the city is trying to get a sense of how severely local business owners have been impacted by the public health emergency, Powell said.

His office is working to survey local businesses, as well as keep them apprised on financial aid as details on resources become available from state and federal government. They’ll also try to identify which neighborhoods and businesses were affected the most to assist economic recovery efforts.

On a state and national level, officials are debating how to resume a society that has been on an indefinite pause, pitting the need to flatten the curve of the potentially deadly virus against warding off a massive economic recession.

During a recent COVID-19 media briefing, Gov. Phil Murphy said that until there is a vaccine – which could be more than a year away – or widespread and instant testing, going back to normal will take a long time. And, even then, it could be a very gradual return to pre-coronavirus life.

“The notion that we’re going to go back to some sort of, let’s just turn the clocks back to three months ago, I just don’t see it,” Murphy told reporters. 

Since mid-March, New Jersey residents have been directed to remain home, except for necessary travel, social gatherings have been banned and non-essential businesses were mandated to close until further notice. 

As of Thursday, students will continue to learn remotely until at least May 15 and graduation ceremonies remain uncertain. The state’s Department of Labor and Workforce Development also released new claims data, showing yet another record-breaking week for applications – 215,000 applications. Over the past month, more than 718,000 people in New Jersey have filed for unemployment due to coronavirus.

Again leaning on “data not dates” Sayegh, concluded that “if we do our part with social distancing and testing,” the fight against coronavirus will be won in Paterson. “The more disciplined we are the less difficult this will be.”

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