A day after federal officials tightened coronavirus mask guidance, Gov. Phil Murphy and the state’s top health official said Wednesday that all people in New Jersey, regardless of vaccination status, are ”strongly recommended” to wear masks indoors in settings where there is “increased risk” — but they stopped short of mandating face coverings again.
In a joint statement, they said scenarios with increased risk include: Crowded indoor settings Indoor settings involving activities in close contact with others who may not be fully vaccinated Indoor settings where others’ vaccine status is unknown and When an individual is immunocompromised or at increased risk for severe disease. They also said a statewide mask mandate could return if the state’s numbers get worse.
Statewide coronavirus hospitalizations have more than doubled in the last month, while the statewide transmission rate has risen to 1.51, the highest mark since the early days of the pandemic.
”Our metrics are trending in the wrong direction, and new data suggests the Delta variant is more transmissible even among vaccinated individuals, which is why we are making this strong recommendation,” Murphy and Persichilli said. “Fortunately, our numbers are a fraction of those in many other states, most of which have significantly lower vaccination rates,” they added. “Should our numbers reach those levels, we reserve the right to take more drastic action, including a statewide mask mandate.”
This comes after the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Tuesday it’s recommending all people, including the fully vaccinated, wear masks indoors again in public places with “high” or “substantial” COVID-19 transmission rates in the U.S.
Eight New Jersey counties fall into the high and substantial categories, according to CDC data. Monmouth County is listed as having “high” transmission, while Atlantic, Bergen, Essex, Middlesex, Ocean, Passaic, and Union counties have “substantial” transmission.
Murphy’s statement Wednesday did specifically not address schools, which are just a few weeks from returning to classes. “No update right now,” Murphy spokeswoman Alyana Alfaro told NJ Advance Media when asked if schools are included in the new recommendations. The state has planned to have no statewide mask mandates for schools when classes resume, though the governor has said officials could change course quickly.
Murphy lifted New Jersey’s indoor mask mandate in late May as the state’s COVID-19 numbers plummeted.
CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said Tuesday that vaccinated people “continue to represent a very small amount of transmission occurring around the country” and that vaccines still reduce the risk of hospitalization “twentyfold.”
But Walensky added that new science shows the delta variant “behaves differently” from past strains of COVID-19 and that, in rare occasions, some vaccinated people can contract the variant and pass it to others.
She warned if the spread isn’t controlled, the virus could be “just a few mutations away” from possibly being able to get past vaccines completely.