While there are hopeful signs the COVID-19 infection curve may be starting to flatten, state health officials continue to insist social distancing and stay-at-home directives must remain firmly in place for the time being.

So when will the start of a return to normalcy begin?

Dr. Ed Lifshitz, the director of communicable disease services for the state Department of Health, says there is no easy answer to the question but a number of variables will have to be considered.

He said one will be the number of COVID-19 deaths but that will be a backward-looking statistic because someone who dies was usually infected two to three weeks earlier.

The number of new cases each day also requires looking back about 10 days, which is usually the time it takes between contracting the virus and getting tested.

Another important statistic is how many individuals need serious medical care.

“We do look at the number of patients in the hospitals, but again that’s backward looking: It tells us what the capacity is as far as hospitals go, it doesn’t tell us how many new people are going to be coming into that picture and are going to need care," Lifshitz said.

“We look at things like utilization in emergency departments — essentially, how often are people going to emergency departments for symptoms that are suggestive of COVID.”

He noted that data is also backward looking “because it takes an average of about five days for people to develop symptoms, another three to four days after that before they typically show up in an emergency department.”

A drop in the number of positive test results compared to the number of people taking the tests would suggest that the virus is becoming less common in the population.

Gov. Phil Murphy said once the numbers start to drop significantly, there will be expanded rapid testing in the region, which will allow for health officials to quickly spot COVID-19 flare-ups and shut specific infection areas.

Several labs and health care companies are developing COVID-19 quick tests but it remains unclear when widespread rapid testing will be available in the Garden State.

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