As COVID-19 cases continue to rise in New Jersey, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention could recommend universal masking for the Garden State as early as this week.

Fourteen counties in New Jersey have moved into the "medium" category for community transmission, according to the CDC Data Tracker. Under new guidelines, masking is not recommended for healthy individuals 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 and household-level prevention behaviors for "medium" transmission levels

  • If you are immunocompromised or high risk for severe disease:
  1. Talk to your healthcare 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 (e.g., having home tests or access to testing)
  3. Talk to your healthcare provider about whether you need to wear a mask and take other precautions (e.g., testing)
  • If you have household or social contact with someone at high risk for severe disease:
  1. Consider self-testing to detect infection before contact
  2. Consider wearing a mask when indoors with them
  • Stay up to date with COVID-19 vaccines and boosters
  • Maintain improved ventilation throughout indoor 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

As many as five New Jersey counties could move into the highest tier this week. Bergen, Monmouth, Morris and Somerset counties have seen the biggest increases in new infections and hospitalizations.

CDC Individual and household-level prevention behaviors for "high" transmission levels

  • Wear a well-fitting mask1 indoors in public, regardless of vaccination status (including in K-12 schools and other indoor community settings)
  • If you are immunocompromised or high risk for severe disease:
  1. Wear a mask or respirator that provides you with greater protection
    Consider avoiding non-essential indoor activities in public where you could be exposed
  2. Talk to your healthcare provider about whether you need to take other precautions (e.g., testing)
  3. Have a plan for rapid testing if needed (e.g., having home tests or access to testing)
  4. Talk to your healthcare provider about whether you are a candidate for treatments like oral antivirals, PrEP, and monoclonal antibodies
  • If you have household or social contact with someone at high risk for severe disease:
  1. Consider self-testing to detect infection before contact
  2. Consider wearing a mask when indoors with them
  3. Stay up to date with COVID-19 vaccines and boosters
  4. Maintain improved ventilation throughout indoor 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. Only about 600 people statewide are currently hospitalized with, or for, COVID infection.

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

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

Many infected by the BA.2 subvariant are experiencing only minor symptoms, and are recovering at home without the need for hospitalization.

If the CDC were using their previous methodology to determine community transmission risk, all 21 New Jersey counties would be in the highest risk category.

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

New Jersey's current rate of transmission (r/t) is 1.21. An r/t above 1.0 indicates an 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.

Gov. Phil Murphy lifted the last of New Jersey's mask mandates in March.  Although he has often touted how New Jersey strictly followed CDC recommendations in the past, Murphy has been reluctant to impose any new restrictions even as COVID metrics trend higher. He has repeatedly said we will have to now learn to live with 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 has briefly reinstated masking policies when the number of infected students and/or staff has risen.

Eric Scott is the senior political director and anchor for New Jersey 101.5. You can reach him at eric.scott@townsquaremedia.com

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