COVID-19 touches down in West Orange

Township, entire state, close down everyday life to prevent spread of disease

Photo Courtesy of CDC
This illustration, created at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, depicts coronavirus. The spikes that adorn the outer surface of the virus impart the look of a corona surrounding the virion when viewed electron microscopically, which gives the virus its name.

WEST ORANGE, NJ — The township is feeling the effects of COVID-19, the strain of coronavirus that was declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organization on March 11. School districts, many businesses and other organizations have closed and schools have moved to online learning for at least two weeks. As of March 19, West Orange has two confirmed cases.

“The WOHD received notification from the NJDOH regarding a positive case of COVID-19 within the township. Members of our task force are working with state and hospital partners to get more information and begin the process of contact tracing,” a statement on the township website read on March 15. “This is not a time to panic! This is a time to follow the instructions of your local, county and state officials. All residents are urged to stay home as much as they can, avoid large groups, continue the practice of good hand washing and personal hygiene, and practice social distancing. Further information will be made available as it is received.”

In a press conference that was livestreamed on Facebook the evening of March 16, Mayor Robert Parisi repeated that there are two confirmed cases in town, and that the health department is following the necessary steps to protect other residents. HIPAA privacy laws prevent the town from releasing the names, addresses or any other information about the people who tested positive for the virus. Health officials are in the process of tracing the steps of the individuals and will call residents who may have been exposed to the virus.

Sue Iovino, a senior public health nurse who works for the township, explained how residents can help slow the spread of the virus.

“When we have a confirmed case, we get the information from the hospitals through our CDRS system, which is a communication system we have with the state health department,” Iovino said at the press conference. “With that information we’re able to see who’s been tested and whether or not their tests have come back positive. Once we receive a positive test from an individual, we are able to begin our contact tracing.”

Iovino spends time on the phone with the person who tested positive to find out where they have been during the period of time they are contagious.

“We find out where they’ve been, who they’ve seen, how they’ve gotten themselves to and from work, how they’ve gotten themselves to and from the hospital, people they may have interacted with, their household contacts, and from that we are able to determine who may or may not need to be contacted and told they are in close contact with a case,” she said. “Close household contacts may or may not require testing depending on the interaction, but we are not recommending all individuals be tested. Individuals with mild symptoms should stay home if they are sick.”

Iovino also explained the confidentiality requirements that come along with the HIPAA law.

“I know a lot of people have called and wanted to know who the individuals are and where they live,” she said. “That information is through HIPAA, and it is our responsibility to protect the individuals’ privacy. We will give information out as necessary.”

Despite Iovino’s explanation of HIPAA and the process to find out with whom people who tested positive for COVID-19 have been in contact, many people in the livestream’s comment section asked to be told who they are and where they live. Parisi again said that the information would not be released to the public and that those who were in contact with a person who tested positive would be contacted by the health department.

Laura Van Dyke, West Orange’s senior citizen coordinator, was at the press conference as well.

“We have an active email list as well as an active mailing list,” Van Dyke said about the measures that have been taken to reach seniors in town. “We were able to send out our resources informing our seniors that, as of last week, our recreational activities and our St. Patrick’s Day party had been canceled. We will be communicating as things improve and sharing when things resume again.”

According to Van Dyke, the email and letter that went to seniors had information about grocery stores and pharmacies, as well as the Holy Trinity-West Orange Food Pantry, which is administered by Cynthia Cumming.

“Cynthia Cumming has been a tremendous resource, and for any of our older adults as well as folks with an underlying health condition, we have the availability to deliver a bag of items from the food pantry to a resident’s home,” she said. “So you can call the Department of Senior Services and we’ll take that referral and get the information over to Cynthia.”

To contact the Department of Senior Services, call 973-325-4105. The food pantry is taking donations and is looking for peanut butter, jelly, ramen, soup, canned fruit, spaghetti sauce and pasta.

Parisi said all town events have been canceled. Town Hall is still open, though it might close in the near future, and residents are being encouraged to count on services through the website and mail if possible. The drop box outside Town Hall will remain open.

“We are closing all kiddie parks and playgrounds, and where possible there will be signs,” Parisi said. “Some playgrounds even have the ability to be locked, so we’ll be locking them. We are not closing our parks. We recognize that the idea is to stay home and stay away from other people, but we do recognize that maybe someone wants to take a walk through a park and walk around the pond and just get a little fresh air. So we’re keeping the parks open and hope that people recognize the recommendations and not congregate with too many people.”

The Toby Katz Community Center at Degnan Park has been closed. The library and municipal court are closed.

Township Council meetings have been canceled, and Parisi said the council is discussing how to hold meetings electronically without violating the Open Public Meetings Act. In a phone interview with the West Orange Chronicle on March 17, Council President Michelle Casalino said the council is waiting on state guidelines.

“Next week is canceled, and we’re waiting on guidelines from the state,” she said. “Hopefully within a week we’ll know. Township business obviously has to carry on. Some things can be passed electronically and then memorialized at a future meeting, but we’ll have to see.”

Casalino also said the budget hearing has been postponed indefinitely.

“We are continuing to operate the jitney,” Parisi said. “Right now, we’re taking the position that as long as NJ Transit is operating there are still residents who might need to get to work, so we’re going to provide the jitney access for as long as we think we can. That’s a decision that might change in a few days. The buses, which also serve as the senior citizen transportation buses, are being cleaned and sanitized on a regular basis. Ridership was significantly down today, so we understand a lot of people are staying home, but there are some people who are still going to work. As long as NJ Transit is operating, we’re going to continue to operate the jitney buses.”

Most of the measures West Orange has taken were superseded by mandates that Gov. Phil Murphy put into place on March 16. In a tweeted video statement on March 16, Gov. Phil Murphy said he ordered the closure of all preschools, K–12 schools and higher education institutions beginning on March 18. All casinos, racetracks, theaters and gyms must be closed, and all nonessential retail, recreational and entertainment businesses must close after 8 p.m. Gatherings of more than 50 people are banned.

“The time for us to make our strongest and most direct actions to date to slow the spread of the coronavirus is now,” Murphy said. “Starting tonight, I am strongly discouraging all nonessential and nonemergency travel in New Jersey between the hours of 8 p.m. and 5 a.m. This will remain in effect for the foreseeable future. We want everyone to be home and not out.”

Murphy said that businesses that are necessary for the public’s welfare, such as grocery stores, pharmacies, medical offices and gas stations may remain open after 8 p.m.

“We do not take any of these steps lightly,” he said. “We know that each comes with its own set of impacts on residents, families, communities and businesses. But at this moment, our paramount concern must be to flatten the curve of new cases so we do not overload our health care system. We all must take seriously the need for social distancing that can help slow the spread of coronavirus.”

The New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission will grant two-month extensions to driver’s licenses, registrations and inspection stickers that expire in March, April and May.

A statement from Assemblyman John McKeon on March 16 said that the state assembly had a voting session that day to take action on bills to stop the spread of the virus.

“The General Assembly plans to convene a voting session on Monday, March 16, to take immediate action on a number of legislative initiatives designed to reduce the spread of the coronavirus and respond to the needs of local governments, businesses and our residents during this pandemic,” McKeon said. “As of now, the state Senate plans to take similar action by Monday, March 23.”

According to McKeon, 25 items were on the agenda. Included were measures allowing county clerks to have an additional week to mail ballots for the 2020 primary election; one to permit remote instruction and virtual learning to count for the 180-day school year requirement; another appropriating $20 million from the general fund to the Department of Education to support school facility cleaning and sanitization; and a measure to require health insurance and Medicaid to cover testing and treatment of COVID-19.

Before Murphy’s order that schools close statewide, the West Orange School District had already shut down. In a statement on March 13, Superintendent Scott Cascone said schools would be closed beginning March 16 and through March 20. March 16 will be categorized as a snow day, while spring break was moved up to March 17 through 20. In an updated statement on March 15, Cascone said the district will move to remote learning on March 23.

 “Our team has worked day and night to prepare for transferring our school district to a virtual model. We have answered many of the questions relative to how this would get done. In a short period of time we have built a comprehensive e-learning platform for all schools and all teachers. All of our staff has been trained on how to use it and have begun to build out their content for those sites,” Cascone said in the March 13 statement. “However, I would be disingenuous and doing a disservice to the children and parents of the school district if I were to move forward next week with this plan with so many questions still left to be answered. There are several key pieces which, while we have good preliminary plans, logistics still need to be ironed out. Furthermore, we need to ensure that all of our stakeholders have received adequate communication and understanding about how to access the services.”

He specified that students who don’t have access to food and internet need to be taken care of, and parents who need childcare need to find alternatives.

“I speak of our food services and ensuring that our students eligible for free and reduced lunch understand how and where to obtain this food. Secondly, while we have an extensive amount of data relative to the students in our schools that do not have internet or computer access, the fact remains that we have yet to zero in on all of those households specifically,” Cascone said. “Further, while we have hard-copy packets developed to go home to those households, the massive job of reproducing hundreds of multipage packets and either distributing them to those households or placing them in central locations still needs to be done. Finally, and from a social-emotional standpoint at this time of uncertainty and even anxiety, to thrust our students, teachers and families into the situation next week whereby, not only with the many seeking alternative childcare or asking others to care for their children, now we are asking them to embark upon an entirely new endeavor and enterprise with the learning. In short, we need more time.”

In his update on March 15, Cascone said that students who qualify for free and reduced lunch would be provided with food while the schools are closed. He also talked about a plan to make sure all students have access to technology.

“Starting tomorrow, the district will be moving forward with an aggressive and personalized outreach effort to families in order to identify the specific needs. Future advisories and resources will be shared and posted on the district website as soon as possible,” he said. “In the interim, for low-income families, if necessary, please avail yourself of a low-cost internet service provided by Comcast. More details on this program can be found on the district website.”

Cascone said that school officials are doing everything they can to make sure students are being cared for.

“Your civil servants in the public school district are doing everything on their part to support you in working with us and working together for the benefit, safety and well-being of our children,” he said. “Together we will overcome this crisis of the day and come out of it stronger, better and more unified than ever before.”

Also announced before Murphy’s order, the Essex County Schools of Technology shifted to online instruction for at least two weeks. In a press release on March 13, the county Board of Education President Edwin Leahy, Essex County Schools of Technology Superintendent James Pedersen and Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo Jr. said that students will be continuing their studies from home.

“After consulting with our school officials and public health officer, I believe keeping our students home and holding online courses are the right things to do. It is unfortunate that our students will be missing out on school sports, activities and camaraderie with their fellow classmates, but holding classes online will enable them to continue to learn,” DiVincenzo said. “By keeping students away from larger gatherings, we hope to prevent the spread of this virus.”

The district has three schools: Donald M. Payne Sr. School of Technology in Newark, Essex County Newark Tech in Newark and West Caldwell Tech, which is temporarily located at the former Bloomfield Tech building in Bloomfield.

“The Essex County Schools of Technology is fully committed to the success of each student, and every effort is being made to offer continuous instruction during the period schools are closed. Our instructors have already created at least two weeks of learning tasks in each subject area, which students can access and complete online,” Pedersen said. “Students without internet access will be provided with hard copies of assignments and all students are expected to complete their assignments, which will be assessed so that they can be awarded the appropriate credit. Students and parents will also be able to communicate with instructors and school administrators through our Virtual High Schools portal to further support the online learning.”

According to the release, students in the county school district who receive free and reduced-price breakfast and lunch will receive a food package every day that can be collected at Payne Tech. Collection for freshman is 9 a.m., for sophomores 10 a.m., for juniors 11 a.m. and for seniors noon.

DiVincenzo announced cancellations across the county in addition to the schools closing. In a press release on March 13, he said Turtle Back Zoo, Codey Arena, county golf courses and senior buildings in the parks system will be closed for two weeks.

“We are taking precautions in order to keep our residents safe and prevent any possible exposure to coronavirus,” DiVincenzo said. “One of the ways to reduce the spread of the virus is to prevent community spread by avoiding large gatherings, such as races and festivals. We are doing everything we can to ensure that our residents feel safe. I encourage the public to follow CDC precautions and wash your hands after using the restroom, coughing or sneezing, and after coming in contact with frequently touched surfaces.”

The State of the County address that was scheduled for March 23 will be postponed, along with Census Day at the zoo, which was scheduled for March 28 and 29; the Cherry Blossom Bike Race on April 4; and the Cherry Blossom 10K race on April 5. Both Cherry Blossom events were supposed to be at Branch Brook Park.

“Other precautions being taken at Essex County offices and institutions to minimize the risk include the following: Additional procedures have been implemented at all county facilities and buildings to enhance the cleaning and sanitizing of offices and areas where the public gathers, such as waiting rooms,” the release read. “The visitation schedule at the Essex County Correctional Facility has been modified. Also, additional measures to medically screen detainees entering and being released from the ECCF have been implemented. The visitation schedule and outside passes for patients at the Essex County Hospital Center have been suspended.”

People dropping off forms at the Essex County Welfare Department are being asked to mail them, email them or put them in drop boxes in the office. The vehicles that are part of the Essex County Transportation program have been cleaned and sanitized and, according to the press release, the county has created partnerships with Uber and Lyft to provide additional transportation options if necessary.

“The congregate meal program offered by the Division of Senior Services as part of the Senior Cafe in the Park program and at other locations throughout the county have transitioned to a grab-and-go format and, in some cases, to home-delivered meals,” the press release read.

In an update on March 16, a press release from the county said all nonessential employees will be working from home; all parks, playgrounds, dog parks, senior buildings, community centers and athletic fields are closed; visitation at the Juvenile Detention Center has been suspended; the Essex County Clerk’s Office has suspended all nonessential services, including the issuance of passports, IDs, notary publics and walk-in services in its vaults; and the Board of Chosen Freeholders are reducing office hours to 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Elsewhere in the county, Sheriff Armando Fontoura announced that the sheriff’s office will be suspending all foreclosure sales and executions for evictions and ejectments until further notice.

“Our important elemental concern is to ensure that members of the Essex County community are safe and healthy, which is why our office came to this decision,” Fontoura said in a press release on March 13. “Our hope is that by curtailing these types of interactions and face-to-face events, we will help stop any spread of contagion during this crucial period of outbreak.”

He said the suspension will be in effect until the state and county have both concluded that the public health emergency has passed.

“We will continue to work hand-in-hand with the local, county and federal governments to monitor the coronavirus crisis as it unfolds,” Fontoura said. “If any Essex County residents have questions regarding this matter, we urge them to call our Civil Process Division, who can be reached at 973-621-4116.”

PSE&G is doing something similar. In a press release on March 13, the power company said it is temporarily suspending shutoffs of electric or gas service to residential customers for nonpayment.

“As we continue to monitor developments regarding the coronavirus, PSE&G recognizes that some of our customers may be negatively affected by issues related to the pandemic,” the press release said. “As always, our priority is the safety and well-being of our customers, employees and the communities we serve, and our thoughts are with those experiencing difficulty as a result.”

The policy will be in place through the end of April. New Jersey American Water is doing the same.

“In an effort to keep our customers safe during the coronavirus pandemic, New Jersey American Water will be placing a moratorium on discontinuing service shutoffs at this time. We will continue to evaluate this moratorium as more information becomes available. Additionally, New Jersey American Water will begin the restoration of service to previously shut-off customers,” a press release from the company read on March 13. “The restoration may take some time, but we will work as quickly and safely as possible. If a customer’s service has been turned off prior to March 12, 2020, we will restart their service.”

NJAW also specified that the water goes through a filtration system that prevents viruses from spreading through water.

“It is important for you to know that New Jersey American Water’s drinking water treatment barriers provide protection that includes filtration and disinfection of our surface water supplies — e.g., those from lakes, reservoirs or rivers — and disinfection of our groundwater sources — e.g., underground wells,” the press release read. “These treatments are effective in removing and/or inactivating viruses. Our water meets all current federal and state drinking water requirements.”

As many grocery stores and retail establishments are hastily restocking supplies, the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office issued a press release on March 12 that the Division of Consumer Affairs is cracking down on price gouging.

“The division is redirecting its investigative resources to keep up with the increased pace of price-gouging complaints, dedicating approximately 55 investigators to inspecting retail establishments throughout the state,” the press release read. “The surge comes as the division has received approximately 270 complaints — including approximately 100 received over the last 24 hours — from consumers alleging price gouging or other unfair businesses practices in the sale of items related to the public’s concern about COVID-19.”

Attorney General Gurbir Grewal called on state, county and municipal consumer protection personnel to stop merchants from profiting off the crisis.

“We have declared a zero-tolerance policy for price gouging and other unfair business practices that prey on consumers concerned by the COVID-19 pandemic and we must use every available resource to enforce the laws that protect New Jersey consumers,” Grewal said. “Today I called on New Jersey consumer protection offices at all levels to join forces to swiftly investigate and put a stop to any merchant seeking to take financial advantage of consumers trying to stay safe and protect themselves and their loved ones from the spread of this virus.”

Parisi encouraged residents to be patient for as long as the pandemic lasts.

“A lot has happened over the last three or four days, and I expect a lot more will happen,” he said at the press conference. “Stay home, stay in small groups and in contact with as few people as possible, and hopefully we’ll get through this.”