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Monday, July 15, 2024

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A Big Week for Pandemic Response

A Big Week for Pandemic Response

By Vince Conti

To access the Herald’s local coronavirus/COVID-19 coverage, click here.
COURT HOUSE – New COVID-19 case numbers, in Cape May County, continue to moderate in defiance of the large summer population, yet some momentous decisions were made this week in the ongoing battle with the virus.
Numbers
There were 48 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 infection reported this week. Among those, 28 were community-based county residents, 19 were non-resident individuals, and only one came from a long-term care facility.
After days where county fatalities did not increase, a 50-year-old Woodbine man succumbed to the virus. His death brings the county’s COVID-19 fatalities to 83, still among the lowest mortality rates in the state.
The county continues to move individuals off quarantine, with 87% of all cases confirmed in county residents since the first case, in March, now off quarantine. The number of active cases remains below 100, at 93 individuals.
The virus continues to rage elsewhere, but the county’s 30-day average of new cases was trending down all month. The virus is still here, but the county is in a better place than many across the nation.
New Decisions
County schools are about to reopen, most on a modified hybrid arrangement that continues to rely, in important ways, on remote learning. Plans were developed, surveys conducted, and community virtual meetings took place. Through it all, the state continues to expand and “clarify” its guidance.
After months in which the state refused to consider a regional approach to reopening the economy, counties and their school districts were placed in six regional groups. Those regions are then associated with one of four color-coded levels of risk based on a series of key health metrics. 
The metrics provide each region with a COVID-19 Activity Level Index Score, thereby designating the region with a color code. Cape May County is in the southeast region, and is designated as yellow, meaning it has a moderate activity level.
The intent of the system is to provide a more localized view of transmission. The information is expected to help schools with reopening strategies.
The new guidance addressed what should be done if schools have confirmed cases. One part of that guidance states that if two or more individuals in different classrooms have confirmed cases within 14 days at the same school, the entire school is at risk for closing.
The guidance suggests that the threshold for serious action on the part of school officials is not high, placing a heavy burden on remote learning alternatives as the only reasonable backup plan.
Votingwas another area of decision and controversy this week.
As Gov. Phil Murphy was announcing a modified vote-by-mail order, some counties, each controlled by the opposing party, were resolving to have in-person voting only. While their opposition was noted, county boards can’t preempt the governor’s decision. Murphy made that clear in his COVID-19 briefing Aug. 17.
Here is how Murphy’s plan will work.
All registered voters will receive ballots early, in October. They may do three things with those ballots: A voter can fill in the ballot and mail it back. Alternately, the voter may fill in the ballot and return it to a secure box located in each municipality. Lastly, the voter can fill in the ballot and turn it in at their polling place on the day of the election.
Those wishing to vote in-person will be able to do so, with Murphy saying that staffing and locations  can accommodate 50% of the electorate, if necessary. However, all votes in person will be provisional until officials determine that the voter did not also vote by mail-in ballot.
The Cape May County freeholders voiced their opposition to the plan, noting that it causes delays and is too staff intensive. They also said that it allows for potential fraud in the election (https://bit.ly/2Fseg2S).
The battle over mail-in voting, in the county, is a microcosm of a national debate largely organized along party lines.
Colleges and universities across the state received some good news this week, as the state designated $150 million in relief funds to help higher education institutions cope with the financial impact of the pandemic.
With Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin expressing alarm at the “devastating budget shortfalls” these institutions are facing, the state allocated funds to all public two and four-year institutions, following the “priority populations” guidance in the New Jersey State Higher Education Plan.
$22 million of the relief funds was allocated to community college support. In the published list, Atlantic Cape stands to receive up to $856,855 spread across its three campuses.
$127 million in funding was earmarked for state four-year institutions, with Stockton University allocated up to $6.4 million.
The remaining $1 million will be distributed to private independent non-profit institutions. 
Each institution is expected to apply for the funds with explanations of how the money would be used.
To contact Vince Conti, email vconti@cmcherald.com.

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