By: Ana Altchek, Follow South Jersey Intern
SOUTH JERSEY – Gov. Phil Murphy gave his final COVID-19 briefing on Friday, March 4th as the virus transitions from a global pandemic to an endemic, and New Jersey shifts from a state of crisis management back towards a more normal way of life again.
The two-year anniversary felt particularly sentimental for Murphy, as he recounted laying in bed while recuperating from cancer surgery on the first day a patient tested positive. Since that day, the state and nation entered a tumultuous journey of damage control as the virus plagued the nation with various shapes and forms.
“Today marks the two-year anniversary of the first confirmed case of COVID-19,” Murphy said. “Since then, counting today, we’ve brought you, whether here at this table or at locations throughout the state, some 257 updates on our progress in fighting the coronavirus pandemic.”
Murphy proceeded to thank New Jersey residents for complying with changing mandates and guidelines over the last two years as the state experienced an unprecedented crisis. He also made a point to thank officials who helped organize the briefings and members of the media for helping to educate civilians and publicize the state’s needs during the pandemic.
“We’re at this point only because of your dedicated work to protect yourselves, your families, and your communities,” Murphy said. “We persevered and fought and persevered and fought some more. That’s why we’re at this point today.”
Over the course of the last two years, Murphy has used the COVID-19 briefings as a time to update residents on the most current numbers of new cases, hospitalizations, and trends relating to the virus. During these meetings he also honored a total of 646 lives out of the over 30,000 in New Jersey that were lost to the virus. In a time when government officials and agencies had to constantly make decisions on data, numbers, and facts, Murphy honored these people in an effort to focus on the individual stories and the families they left behind. More importantly, he partook in this tradition to refrain from reducing any life to a mere number.
“I have called each and every one of their families speaking with well more than 1,000 family members,” Murphy said of the 646 that passed away. “Some calls were light-hearted and we laughed together over happy memories and many were brutal and somber, and we cried together over what had been lost. All are forever in my memory and our memory. We still honor them.”
Murphy also used the regular briefings to feature small businesses and community-based organizations that were put on the line by the pandemic, but survived because of a state-offered financial support program. During the last briefing, Murphy highlighted the New Jersey Economic Development Authority (EDA), which injected nearly $850 million into small businesses throughout the state. The EDA awarded over 80,500 grants and purchased over four million meals from struggling restaurants for food insecure individuals.
Now that the Omicron wave has mostly dissipated, officials feel that the healthcare system is prepared to take on future risks and the state is ready to move forward with normalcy and end the period of living life in fear.
The end of COVID-10 briefings also coincides with Murphy lifting the statewide school and daycare mask mandate, which came into effect this Monday, March 7th. During the final briefing, Murphy announced he would sign the executive order that day to formally enact this change. The school and daycare mask requirement was the last major restriction put in place. In addition to removing the mask mandate, Murphy officially lifted the public health emergency that was declared in January when Omicron was at its peak.
“Like today’s briefing, this action marks the end of this phase of our war against the coronavirus,” Murphy said.
Despite this lift, the normal state of emergency that was enacted March 9, 2020 and which allows for statewide management of the COVID-19 response, continues to stay in place. This will allow the state to continue to receive federal funding for vaccinations, testing, and the healthcare system’s response without bureaucratic obstacles. With that said, he reminded residents that the state has made enormous progress and the time for large-scale mitigation measures had so far passed.
Department of Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli, reminded residents that COVID-19 surges will most likely continue to occur. In preparation, the state will continue to set targets based on disease burden and severity using COVID community levels. The Department of Health will also continue to work with the CDC to monitor the capacity of the healthcare system, identify emerging variants and examine syndromic surveillance as early indicators of increasing infection.
Persichilli also made note of the new feature to the NJ COVID-19 dashboard titled COVID-19 Cases by Vaccination Status. The new page under the Case and Mortality Summary tab displays updates about weekly COVID-19 cases, hospitalization rates, and death tolls for unvaccinated persons, those who have received their first series of doses, and those with boosters. This chart will be updated every Wednesday with the most recent data.
Officials at the briefing made a point to honor the state’s success in handling the novel virus. With one of the best vaccination programs in the country, New Jersey has vaccinated 92% of its population. As the COVID-19 era comes to an end for now, Persichilli reminds residents to continue the practices that have led them to this point.
“Now, lastly, please remember, continue to wash your hands frequently. Practice respiratory hygiene. Physically distance. Stay home when you’re sick and get vaccinated and boosted to protect yourselves, your families, your friends, and our children. Thank you.” Persichilli said.
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