CDC may recommend universal masking for NJ this week

As COVID-19 cases continue to rise in New Jersey, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may recommend universal face coverings for the Garden State as early as this week.

14 counties in New Jersey have moved into the “average” category for community transmission, according to the CDC Data Tracker. Under the new guidelines, masking is not recommended for healthy people unless community transmission reaches “high” levels.

Bergen, Burlington, Cape May, Essex, Hudson, Hunterdon, Mercer, Middlesex, Monmouth, Morris, Somerset, Sussex, Union and Ocean counties are all listed at the CDC’s “medium” risk level.

CDC Individual-Level and Household-Level Prevention Behaviors for “Medium” Levels of Transmission

  • If you are immunocompromised or at high risk of serious illness:
  1. Talk to your health care provider about whether you are a candidate for treatments like oral antivirals, PrEP, and monoclonal antibodies
  2. Have a plan for rapid testing if needed (for example, having home testing or having access to testing)
  3. Talk to your healthcare provider about whether you need to wear a mask and take other precautions (eg, testing)
  • If you have family or social contact with a person at high risk of serious illness:
  1. Consider self-testing to detect infection before contact
  2. Remember to wear a mask when you are inside with them
  • Stay up to date with COVID-19 vaccines and reminders
  • Maintain improved ventilation in interior spaces when possible
  • Follow CDC recommendations for isolation and quarantine, including getting tested if you are exposed to COVID-19 or have symptoms of COVID-19

Up to five counties in New Jersey could move to the highest tier this week. Bergen, Monmouth, Morris and Somerset counties have seen the largest increases in new infections and hospitalizations.

CDC Individual-Level and Household-Level Prevention Behaviors for “High” Levels of Transmission

  • Wear a properly fitted mask1 indoors in public, regardless of vaccination status (including K-12 schools and other indoor community settings)
  • If you are immunocompromised or at high risk of serious illness:
  1. Wear a mask or respirator that gives you better protection
    Consider avoiding non-essential indoor activities in public where you may be exposed
  2. Talk to your healthcare provider about whether you need to take any other precautions (eg, testing)
  3. Have a plan for rapid testing if needed (for example, having home testing or having access to testing)
  4. Talk to your health care provider about whether you are a candidate for treatments like oral antivirals, PrEP, and monoclonal antibodies
  • If you have family or social contact with a person at high risk of serious illness:
  1. Consider self-testing to detect infection before contact
  2. Remember to wear a mask when you are inside with them
  3. Stay up to date with COVID-19 vaccines and reminders
  4. Maintain improved ventilation in interior spaces when possible
  5. Follow CDC recommendations for isolation and quarantine, including getting tested if you are exposed to COVID-19 or have symptoms of COVID-19

The CDC is currently using an increase in hospitalizations to gauge transmission levels. Just about 600 people statewide are currently hospitalized with or for COVID infection.

Hospitalizations are at a fraction of the levels seen in early 2022, when more than 6,000 COVID patients occupied beds.

The January COVID wave was driven by the omicron variant. Most current infections come from the BA.2 offshoot, which is more transmissible but does not cause more severe disease.

Many people infected with the BA.2 subvariant have only minor symptoms and recover at home without requiring hospitalization.

If the CDC used its previous methodology to determine the risk of community transmission, all 21 counties in New Jersey would be in the highest risk category.

On Sunday, state health officials reported an additional 2,783 new positive tests and one death attributed to COVID infection.

New Jersey’s current transmission rate (r/t) is 1.21. An r/t greater than 1.0 indicates active spread of the virus.

Even with the CDC currently monitoring COVID infections in New Jersey and other northeastern states seeing similar increases, a mask recommendation would not automatically trigger a statewide mask mandate.

Governor Phil Murphy lifted the last of New Jersey’s mask mandates in March. Although he’s often touted how New Jersey has strictly followed CDC recommendations in the past, Murphy has been reluctant to impose new restrictions even as COVID measures tend to increase. He has repeatedly said that now we will have to learn to live with the coronavirus.

Local school districts, municipalities and businesses can impose their own mask mandates. A handful of school districts, including Newark, have left mask mandates in place for students and staff. Other districts briefly reinstated masking policies when the number of infected students and/or staff increased.

Eric Scott is the senior policy director and anchor of New Jersey 101.5. You can reach him at [email protected]

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