Coronavirus arrives in Union County

Photo Courtesy of Union County A 48-year-old man in Berkeley Heights became the first Union County resident to contract COVID-19.

UNION COUNTY, NJ — The first case of coronavirus in Union County was found on March 9, as Gov. Phil Murphy declared a state of emergency. As of March 10, 15 people in New Jersey have tested positive for the coronavirus, including a 48-year-old man in Berkeley Heights currently staying at Overlook Medical Center in Summit.

“The state of New Jersey is committed to deploying every available resource, across all levels of government, to help respond to the spread of COVID-19 and keep our residents informed,” said Murphy in a press release. “My administration will continue to work closely with our federal partners to ensure that local health agencies on the front lines of the state’s responses are equipped with the resources needed to further prepare our health care system for a broader spread of COVID-19.”

New Jersey recorded its first coronavirus fatality on March 10. The victim was a 69-year-old male from Bergen County, according to New Jersey Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli. He died at Hackensack University Medical Center.

At least two dozen people in New Jersey are under investigation and in the queue to be tested in state labs, according to Persichilli.
Berkeley Heights closed schools on Tuesday following the identification of the coronavirus patient. Roselle closed schools on Tuesday and Wednesday after a staff member made contact with someone recently diagnosed with coronavirus.

According to a March 6 letter sent to parents by Superintendent Scott Rudin, Cranford public schools will be closed on Monday, March 16, to make “strong and meaningful” coronavirus preparations, including additional disinfecting of school buildings and designing lessons students can take from home in the event of more extensive school closures.

“There is currently no recommendation to close schools in our area,” the Cranford Public School District said in a press release. “However, we have been asked by the Department of Education to act with a precautionary set of protocols and to develop a plan, should it become necessary for school closure, for which the day would still count as a school day for students. In other words, the physical school buildings would be closed, but students would maintain learning in one form or another.”

Elsewhere, on March 5 Kean University became the first New Jersey college, “out of an abundance of caution,” to suspend out-of-state travel during spring break for five of its athletic teams.

“Our top priorities are the health and safety of our student athletes and the entire campus community,” said the school in an official statement. “This approach also minimizes the risk of disruption to the rest of the student athletes’ academic semester and season. This decision applies to spring break only at this time. The university will continue to monitor the situation and make this decision that is in the best interest of our campus community.”

According to a March 10 press release from Kean University, the school will begin remote education on Monday, March 16 “to minimize the density of people on campus and reduce the potential health risk to our community.” Students have been instructed to not return after spring break.

Kean currently expects to resume on-campus instruction on March 30.
Kean is but one of several New Jersey schools to temporarily suspend on-camppus classes.
Rutgers University will cancel classes beginning from March 12 through the end of spring break on March 22.

Online classes will be offered until April 3, after which the university will re-evaluate the situation.
Rutgers also encouraged students to leave their dorms as soon as possible.

On March 9, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that Rick Cotton, executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, tested positive for the coronavirus. Cotton, whose agencies oversee Newark Liberty International Airport and the PATH trains to New York City, will be working from home and self-quarantining.

Assistant Professor Robert Pyatt, who teaches molecular genetics in the New Jersey Center for Science, Mathematics and Technology at Kean University and holds a doctorate in pathology, recently spoke at the university about improving science communication in the era of coronavirus.

“One of the biggest issues everyone is having is balancing concern of the unknown,” Pyatt said. “Because it’s a new virus, we’re not sure of the pathogenicity, it’s infection rate and unfortunately, how many people die. That inherently strokes some fearmongering. I don’t know that it’s being hyped more than it should, but the context is being left out.”

Pyatt noted that the annual flu season kills 300,000 to 600,000 people and is a “much more immediate threat,” though he acknowledged that, unlike the flu, the coronavirus does not yet have a vaccine.

“People are concerned with the coronavirus and they should be, but in the United States right now you should be more concerned about your chances of getting the flu and possibly dying from that,” said Pyatt.
As of March 10, the coronavirus has killed more than 4,000 people worldwide. 27 Americans have died so far. Roughly 64,000 people who were infected have since recovered.

The outbreak has prompted Trinitas Regional Medical Center to prepare for the potential arrival of the virus.
“As a community hospital in close proximity to major transportation hubs like Newark Liberty Airport, Trinitas Regional Medical Center physicians and staff must remain in a state of continual readiness for any public health emergency, including the potential of a patient with the novel coronavirus,” Trinitas said in a March 4 press release.

“Trinitas takes the threats posed by this new virus very seriously, and we are fully prepared to meet the challenges they present,” said Trinitas President and Chief Executive Officer Gary S. Horan in the press release. “As our main hospital facility is just three miles from one of the busiest airports in the United States, we are right at the gateway to hundreds and thousands of international travelers who are passing through or looking to enter our region.”

Under the guidance of infection prevention and emergency management leaders, Trinitas staff members have trained and participated in exercises designed to assure safe responses to emerging illnesses and infections, as well as to manage an influx of patients and individuals who are concerned they may have been exposed. This approach includes aligning Elizabeth and Union County health agencies.

According to epidemiologist and Chair of the Infections Prevention and Control Committee at Trinitas William Farrar, the hospital has begun “screening at our patient entrance points for out-of-country travel, especially to those countries identified as high risk; appropriate isolation of patients with flulike symptoms; ongoing actions necessary to reduce the risk of the spread of infection to other patients, our staff and our community; and continual monitoring of the situation.”

Summit Mayor Nora Radest recently moderated a panel regarding preparation and planning for COVID-19.
The video was uploaded onto YouTube on March 4.

Panel participants include Westfield Regional Health Director Megan Avallone, Summit City Administrator Michael Rogers, Deputy Fire Chief and Emergency Management Coordinator Donald Nelson, and Summit Volunteer First Aid Squad President Robert Flanagan.
Avallone said that despite the scare of the virus in the tri-state area and throughout the nation, Summit has been doing well so far.

“One thing I think that the community should know is that Summit is really prepared for this if things happen to become more extensive,” Avallone said. “A few years ago, we went through H1N1 and this reminds me a lot of that situation. We were busy but we handled it really well. So, I’m really confident that, with the preparation that we’ve been currently providing, we’ll be able to get through just fine.”
In a March 9 press release, Vitalant blood center’s chief medical and scientific officer Ralph Vassallo urged healthy individuals to donate blood despite coronavirus fears.

“Hospitals will be extremely challenged if COVID-19 infections increase,” Vassallo said in the press release. “The last thing we want them worrying about is having enough blood for trauma victims and cancer patients.
“That’s why it’s imperative that healthy individuals donate blood at drives and blood donation sites now.”