Do you want data – broken down by county – on COVID-19 cases in New Jersey schools?

There’s now a dashboard for that.

Speaking at a media briefing Nov. 22, Gov. Phil Murphy announced the New Jersey Department of Health’s launch of the dashboard, which includes K-12 schools as well as colleges and universities.

The dashboard will perhaps be more significant than the governor foresaw as the new omicron variant that emerged in South Africa renews fears about potential lockdowns and a surge in cases.

There were recently 2,081 K-12 schools, about 60% of those in the state; and 45 colleges and universities, more than 40% in the state, participating in a self-reporting program that powers the dashboard.

“This data goes beyond the numbers currently reported weekly and which are related solely to instances of in-school transmission,” Murphy said. “This dashboard breaks down the data by county, and the department is continuing its outreach with school districts to ensure as robust a report as possible.”

Judith M. Persichilli, commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Health, said, “A total of 18,747 student cases and 4,095 teacher/staff cases have been reported since the beginning of the year in the K-12 schools. In our colleges and universities, a total of 1,921 student cases and 483 teacher and staff cases were reported since the beginning of the year.”

She added, “We are seeing increases in case rates recently among students and staff in both K-12 and the institutions of higher ed. Rates are higher among staff compared to students in both settings. Case rates in K-12 schools were highest in early October and had begun to steadily decline until the second week of November, when they began to increase again.

Persichilli noted that in the last reporting period, 85.2% of staff were fully vaccinated. “Staff vaccination rates were highest in Somerset and Bergen counties and lowest in Ocean County,” she said. “The highest case rates among students and staff are Sussex, Gloucester and Monmouth counties and lowest in Essex County. Statewide, 3.5% of students were excluded from school due to COVID-19, and Sussex County also had the highest percentage of students learning remotely for reasons attributed to COVID-19 exclusion.”

Dr. Christina Tan, state epidemiologist, said while not every school is reporting COVID data, health officials are anticipating more schools will do so, which will make the dashboard more robust. “For the purpose of monitoring trends, we feel this type of information is very valuable for schools, for parents, for administrators to get a sense of what is the disease burden,” she said. “We have to remember that the cases that are being reported might not have occurred through in-school transmission. These are self-reported cases, for example, that parents and staff might be reporting or that we’re picking up from the school testing itself.”

During the Nov. 22 briefing, the governor and health officials highlighted a recent increase in transmission and hospitalizations, noting that they are hopeful that more people will get vaccinated for the first time or get a booster shot to keep COVID-19 in check.

Masks in Schools  

The wearing of masks in schools was another topic of discussion at the Nov. 22 media briefing. The governor’s executive order that mandates wearing them in schools expires Jan. 11.

“We’re not there yet on lifting the mandate, but please God we will be, and I hope it’s sooner than later,” Murphy said. “I continue to envision something that looks phased. In other words, the 12 and up kids have been eligible for the vaccine a lot longer and their penetration rate is a lot more significant than the 5 to 11 crowd. That, to our way of thinking is a guideline.” He added, “The more kids we get vaccinated, the more everyone gets boosted, the faster we’re going to be able to get out of this, lift the mandate, get rid of all the stuff that is hanging over all of our heads, which is weighing heavily.”

Omicron Variant

Speaking at a Nov. 29 media briefing after the world learned of the omicron variant, Murphy said that with New Jersey being a hub of international commerce, the state must be ready for a surge in cases. “There is still very much unknown about this new variant,” he said. “We are all closely following the research into this variant as it is released, and we’re all watching closely as new cases are discovered and reported.”

At that same news conference, Tan noted, “Omicron just happens to have many, many more mutations that might be concerning to public health officials because some of these mutations right now might be in areas that potentially impact immune response, vaccine efficacy, and transmissibility, but again, all of that’s theoretical right now, and only time will tell as we have a better sense of what’s going on in terms of the impact of omicron on transmissibility, vaccine effectiveness and the scope of illness.”

Persichilli added, “The vaccines are effective against delta, so I encourage everyone not to be hysterical about what we don’t know about omicron but to be really proactive in controlling what we do know, which is the delta variant is here, it’s with us, it’s causing increasing trends. The vaccines are effective, so if you haven’t been vaccinated, get vaccinated, and if you haven’t been boosted, get boosted.”

Visit the dashboard and select “Schools” at the top of the menu bar to review the latest COVID school data.