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Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli on Tuesday thanked New Jersey businesses for all the safeguards they have implemented to curb the spread of COVID-19, but said a full reopening of the state’s economy without indoor occupancy restrictions was unlikely without a large-scale vaccination program in 2021.

Speaking by video conference during a Virtual Town Hall sponsored by NJBIA and the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce, Persichilli said that essential workers and vulnerable populations will likely receive the first round of vaccines when they become available, hopefully by the end of 2020. A larger scale vaccination program would come in 2021 once the next round of vaccines is available.

“I want everyone to be knowledgeable about the COVID-19 vaccine…to consider getting vaccinated,” Persichilli said. “That will be the only way we will be able to return to a full reopening. Masking, social distancing, washing your hands, and respiratory etiquette will continue, even as we are vaccinating individuals, to bring us to a point of what we call community protection.”

NJBIA President & CEO Michele Siekerka and Chamber of Commerce President & CEO Tom Bracken urged the commissioner to tie decisions on more fully reopening businesses to regional data, such as the number of positive COVID-19 cases in a given area of the state.

“I look at the state on a statewide basis,” Persichilli said. “The number of cases is just one indicator. We actually look every day at 10 a.m. at a series of indicators that the epidemiologists prepare for us,” she said, adding that other indicators include the COVID-19 transmission rate and the number of influenza-type illnesses and COVID-like illnesses being reported by hospital emergency rooms.

“It’s not as simple as just looking at one set of indicators and making a decision for reopening,” Persichilli told Siekerka. “I would be happy to go over with you what that looks like on a daily basis. It might give a better idea of what we could do together.”

Siekerka said the business community would welcome the opportunity to talk with the commissioner more in-depth at a future meeting about its proposal for a “regional approach with metrics.”  A regional approach is key in case hot spots of COVID-19 appear in the months ahead, Siekerka said, noting the economy cannot endure another statewide shutdown as it did in March.

Persichilli said New Jersey residents should be preparing for the possibility of a resurgence of both influenza and COVID-19 illnesses this fall. The Department of Health is strongly urging residents to get the flu vaccine before the end of October in order to achieve the most protection, and to get the COVID-19 vaccine when it becomes available.

In the meantime, social distancing and good hygiene practices are essential while the state gears up to implement a large-scale COVID-19 vaccination program in 2021.

“For those who can, telecommuting is still recommended…and face-to-face meetings and travel should be limited,” Persichilli said. “The only tools we have in our toolkit right now are safeguarding tools – masking, social distancing, washing hands frequently and respiratory etiquette. It’s really all we have.”

To watch the entire virtual town hall, go here.

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