Almost 5 million New Jersey residents are now completely vaccinated but another 246 confirmed COVID cases have been reported and hospitalizations have ticked up to 315 with 49 people now in intensive care.

Health officials believe the reason why is the Delta variant circulating in the unvaccinated population, and Gov. Phil Murphy said it is possible masking mandates could return in the fall depending on what happens with the COVID metrics.

“It’s overall caseload, it’s how many people are getting sick, positivity rates, rates of transmission, hospitalizations,” he said. “There’s a collection of metrics that we follow.”

“I hope we don’t have to go back," he added. "We would not have taken the steps we’ve taken with any expectation that we had to go backward. We’re the only state in America that has not lurched, in other words taken a step and then pulled back from it.”

Murphy said hopefully COVID infections and hospitalizations won’t spike and force mandatory masking “but if we have to, we will."

State epidemiologist Dr. Tina Tan said we are seeing an increase in Delta variant cases nationally. The Alpha variant, also referred to the U.K. variant, is still the most common type of COVID now circulating.

“If you have not yet started on your vaccine journey now is the time,” Murphy said. “The vaccines are proving themselves safe, effective, and they are free, accessible to everybody.”

The World Health Organization is recommending that because of the Delta variant, even fully vaccinated people should continue to mask up and social distance. So far the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has not issued similar guidance in the United States.

Recent studies have shown the Pfizer vaccine to be 88% effective in blocking infection from the delta variant, and researchers believe the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines are also quite effective.

Murphy also pointed out masks remain mandatory on “planes, trains, buses, in health care facilities, long term care facilities, other indoor vulnerable locations such as prisons.”

He stressed the best thing to do to stop the Delta and all other variants from circulating is to get vaccinated, and when in doubt wear a mask.

“Do it for your health and the health and safety of your family,” he said. “Better to be safe than sorry would be my angle on this.”

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