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COVID-19 cases rising in 5 N.J. counties, and Ocean is the biggest concern, officials say

State officials warned Friday that coronavirus cases have been rising in five New Jersey counties, with Ocean County and especially the township of Lakewood “clearly our hotspots right now,” Gov. Phil Murphy said.

“It’s fair to say we got a few counties that are rising to a level of concern,” Murphy said during his latest coronavirus briefing in Trenton. “Folks, this is clear evidence we are not out of the woods.”

The warning came as the state announced seven more COVID-19 deaths and 612 new cases — down significantly from peak numbers in the spring but still the most the state has seen in a week.

In addition to Ocean, state Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli said there has been “an uptick in cases” in Bergen, Gloucester, Middlesex, and Monmouth counties.

Those five counties have recorded more than 1,000 of the state’s 2,500 new COVID-19 cases since Monday.

In particular, Persichilli said, Ocean has reported 439 positive cases in that time, followed by Monmouth with 248, Middlesex with 220, and Gloucester with 130.

The commissioner said Ocean has averaged about 100 to 150 new cases a day recently. Of that number, she said, at least half or more have come from Lakewood.

“The positivity rate in Lakewood is also increasing, which is a concern,” Persichilli added.

Murphy said officials believe there is “some amount of relationship to worship” from the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah, which was last weekend. Lakewood is home to a large Orthodox Jewish community.

Another Jewish holiday, Yom Kippur, will run Sunday into Monday.

The governor warned people not to cast bias on the religious community in the area.

“Every religion in this state has a right to practice and worship,” Murphy said. “I don’t want a speck of anybody in this state, ‘Hey, see, it’s because of them’ or whatever. We’re working aggressively with faith leaders, with community leaders. But I want everybody to leave any prejudices or biases, to check them at the door. This is about public health, and we’re doing our very best.”

Still, Murphy stressed: “We need everybody to worship and observe holidays responsibly, including from a public health standpoint.”

Persichilli said she has spoken with both community and religious leaders from Lakewood and noted “their collaboration and cooperation is extraordinary.”

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Officials also continue to warn that more younger people are contracting the virus. The main age group for the cases in Ocean and Monmouth counties are 18 to 29 years old.

While younger people are less likely to die or be hospitalized for COVID-19, officials warn they can still pass it to older, more vulnerable people.

Persichilli said the increases in Monmouth may be related to “house gatherings and business operations.”

“We are reminding people that social distancing and masking is critical to protect people when they gather,” the health commissioner said.

Persichilli said the state has sent 6,000 test kits to enable increased testing and additional contact tracers to Ocean County and will send more contact tracers next week. Monmouth also asked for more contact tracers, she said.

Meanwhile, Persichilli said student housing at Rowan University in Glassboro is related to increases in Gloucester County. She said state officials are working closely with the college, and they are “seeing a significant decline in new cases.”

New Jersey, once a coronavirus hotspot and home to the second-most COVID-19 deaths in the nation, has seen its daily numbers of deaths, hospitalizations, and cases fall significantly from April, when officials routinely announced hundreds of new fatalities and thousands of new positive tests a day.

On Thursday, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the White House’s leading infectious disease expert, told the governor during an interview that New Jersey is in “good shape” and can continue to reopen its schools and economy “gradually, prudently, and carefully” despite America facing a possible second wave of the virus.

But Murphy on Friday warned that the recent rise in cases shows New Jersey needs to remain cautious. He also extended the state’s public-health emergency for a seventh time.

Still, many lawmakers — including top Republicans — as well as numerous business owners and residents have called on Murphy to lift his restrictions even further.

New Jersey has reported 202,100 COVID-19 cases out of more than 3.47 million tests administered in the nearly seven months since the outbreak here started in early March. That’s the eighth most cases among U.S. states.

The state of 9 million people has reported 16,097 deaths related to the virus — 14,306 lab-confirmed and 1,791 considered probable. New Jersey has the nation’s highest COVID-19 death rate per 100,000 residents.

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Brent Johnson may be reached at [email protected].

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