New Jersey braces for second wave of COVID-19 cases

BY Brenda Flanagan, Senior Correspondent |

Gov. Phil Murphy sounded an ominous warning as he toured two more facilities where the Army Corps of Engineers helped build extra bed space. Murphy said even as New Jersey copes with COVID-19’s first deadly assault, the state’s bracing for a second wave of infection that could be even worse.

“If this virus behaves like a lot of other viruses that looks like it — and there’s a lot of discussion about that — we could see it come back in through the back door in the fall or winter,” Murphy said.

The CDC’s director predicts a winter surge of COVID-19 cases will be devastating when coupled with the nation’s usual flu season. That’s one reason why Murphy’s in such a rush to get ready. It took contractors working with the Army Corps and State Police just two weeks to gut an old auxiliary hospital building in East Orange — replacing floors, walls, plumbing, HVAC and electrical systems.

“Working shifts day and night, they’ve replaced 123 sinks, installed 30 miles of electrical cable,” said Col. David Park, commander of the Philadelphia district of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The East Orange facility will be ready May 5 and add 250 beds. Workers did it all while enforcing strict precautions with tests, masks and temperature checks.

“As much as we’re actually focused like a laser beam on getting hospital spaces for you, we’ve got to also protect the team because we don’t know what this thing is going to do,” said Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite, chief of engineers and commanding general of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Meanwhile, at Bergen New Bridge Medical Center contractors transformed a bare gymnasium into a 30-bed hospital space. It’s a massive effort that was completed in 13 days. Another 100 beds will occupy a tent outside. Builders used pre-fab materials that resemble lego blocks.

“This is what we’re planning for, right? This will be used quickly, but this is also from a future standpoint,” said Bergen County Executive Jim Tedesco.

New York’s Gov. Andrew Cuomo says he worked out a deal with the president to conduct 40,000 COVID-19 tests a day. New Jersey’s also looking for federal help to boost its testing capacity.

“I’ve talked a lot about testing,” Murphy said. “Forget about a second wave, we need a much broader-scaled, fast turn-around testing to have the confidence to reopen.”

New Jersey health officials estimate that the state needs to do 20,000 to 30,000 COVID-19 tests a day to track the virus. Right now, it’s testing only 7,000 to 9,000 people on a daily basis. As COVID-19 burns its way south, Central Jersey’s now in the eye of the viral storm with hospitals going on divert.

“Penn Princeton has been really busy, and they’ve been busy for a while. So flattening hospitalizations, but more central than north,” said New Jersey Department of Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli. “So the regional strategy is working but we expect this to go through mid-May.”

As always, medical staff shortages remain a prime problem. But New Jersey got some reinforcements Tuesday when 34 seasoned nurses flew in from Colorado-based Centura Health. They’ll stay for maybe a month.

“Your unselfish willingness to reencounter the virus in New Jersey is truly inspiring,” said Sister Patricia Cody, president of the Catholic HealthCare Partnership of New Jersey.