TRENTON – Gov. Phil Murphy is strongly recommending – though not mandating, at least not yet – that residents wear masks indoors when there is increased risk of contracting COVID-19, even for people who are fully vaccinated.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changed its masking recommendation Tuesday, in the face of rising cases fueled by the Delta variant of the coronavirus, for people in counties deemed to have high or substantial levels of community transmission.

The recommendation from Murphy and Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli doesn’t make that county-based distinction and applies statewide in certain situations: indoor settings that are crowded or involve close contact with people who aren’t vaccinated or whose vaccine status is unknown, or for people who are immunocompromised.

Murphy and Persichilli said in a statement that New Jersey’s “metrics are trending in the wrong direction” and that new data suggests the Delta variant is more transmissible even among vaccinated individuals.

“Fortunately, our numbers are a fraction of those in many other states, most of which have significantly lower vaccination rates,” they said. “Should our numbers reach those levels, we reserve the right to take more drastic action, including a statewide mask mandate.”

Screenshot of CDC website (Townsquare Media NJ)

Updated ... New Jersey has 10 counties where COVID transmission is high or substantial, based on CDC data current through Monday. Monmouth County is considered to have high transmission, while Atlantic, Bergen, Burlington, Essex, Gloucester, Middlesex, Ocean, Somerset and Union counties are rated as substantial.

Gloucester and Somerset counties moved to substantial transmission levels with the Wednesday update, which reflects data through Monday.

The state announced nearly 1,200 new COVID cases Wednesday, including 854 confirmed by PCR testing and 342 probable cases detected by antigen tests. The rate of transmission is currently measured at 1.51, a high level that suggests every person who is sick infects 1.5 others.

There are 473 people hospitalized in New Jersey because of COVID currently, the most since early June and up by around 200 since early July.

New Jersey’s COVID case rate over the past week is averaging 8.2 daily cases per 100,000 residents. Two-thirds of states have higher case rates. But the case rate is at its highest level since May 11, and it has risen notably since a pandemic-era low of 2 cases per 100,000 just three weeks ago.

Case rates in the past week are averaging 16.8 daily cases per 100,000 residents in Monmouth County and 11 per 100,000 residents in Ocean County – both surpassing the 10 per day threshold that used to trigger a travel advisory.

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Statewide, 65.4% of residents have gotten at least one dose of a COVID vaccine, including 76.3% of those 12 years and older who are eligible. Nearly 58% of residents, and over 67% of eligible residents, are fully vaccinated.

Murphy and Persichilli urged more people to get inoculated, calling vaccines “the surest way we can end this pandemic.”

“But at this point, given where our metrics are now, we feel the best course of action is to strongly encourage every New Jerseyan, and every visitor to our state, to take personal responsibility and mask up indoors when prudent,” they said.

Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com.

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