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The latest models show two drastically different possible futures for how dramatically the coronavirus could impact New Jerseyans.

In a worst-case scenario, New Jersey could see a second wave that peaks next March with even higher case numbers than we saw this spring. More than 12,000 people could be hospitalized at once — not a good sign, especially as experts warn of a "twindemic" colliding with flu season. Close to 9,000 new COVID-19 cases could be announced each day. By the end of next September, more than 1 million New Jerseyans may have had the virus. 

There's another scenario that state health officials have run. In a "moderate but realistic prediction," cases slowly climb, but daily new case counts would not rise above 800, and at most 1,200 people may need to go to the hospital in one day for treatment linked to the virus through next September. In total, about 366,000 may contract COVID by September 2021.

Because the state's current daily case count is relatively low, New Jersey is "well positioned" to handle a second wave, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said during a Facebook Live session with Gov. Phil Murphy in mid-September. And Murphy said on Wednesday that he doesn't expect to have to shut down all nonessential businesses to the extent he did last March. 

But to stay on that path, New Jerseyans must continue to wear face coverings, stay 6 feet away from others and thoroughly wash their hands, public health experts say. And even if a vaccine is approved by the end of the year, it likely won't be available to the wider population until the end of 2021, so the public won't be able to rely on a shot to keep infections low quite yet. 

View latest modeling predictions. Story continues below:

So what causes that difference in modeling outcomes? Modelers played with the rate of transmission, or the number of people someone with COVID-19 will infect. The ideal RT is below 1.0, meaning that someone would give the virus to one person or less. Modelers say an RT between .8 and 1.3 shows strong social distancing. The current rate in New Jersey is 1.19.

The worst case scenario assumes an RT of 1.0 to 1.5 in October as schools, restaurants and offices reopen, with a peak between 1 and 1.8 to 2.0 in December, January and February.

The moderate scenario keeps the RT at 0.9 to 1.3 in the fall, and up to 0.9 to 1.5 in the winter months. 

That's quite low, considering the RT climbed above 5 at the start of the pandemic as a handful of initial cases snowballed into thousands of new cases a day. During the peak last April, cases reached nearly 4,400 in a day.

New Jersey epidemiologists and data scientists run multiple scenarios each day to predict what can happen in the short- and long-term that vary based on the assumptions they make, such as the percentage of the population that is social distancing, the rate of transmission, and how many people a positive case will infect, as well as data already recorded, such as the number of people in the hospital. The more long term the model, the more difficult it gets to predict.  For more information on the models, visit this website. 

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"It's important to remember our models are only as good as the data we have," said Stephanie Silvera, professor of public health at Montclair State University. "New Jersey does pretty well, but we still have gaps, like we know younger people are less likely to show symptoms, so they are less likely to be tested."

COVID-19 cases are steadily ticking up in New Jersey as shore communities see spikes possibly linked to worship around the Jewish holidays, and health officials urge younger people to stop throwing house parties or acting as if they are invincible.

And as news broke that President Donald Trump visited a Bedminster fundraiser on Thursday just hours before he tested positive for the coronavirus, Murphy urged anyone who attended the event to quarantine and get tested

View predictions of cumulative cases by county. Story continues below:

On Friday, New Jersey reported 796 new COVID cases, the highest daily case count since the end of May. There have been more than 16,000 confirmed and probable deaths in New Jersey due to COVID, and 206,629 Garden State residents have been infected since the start of the pandemic. About 500 people are hospitalized and have or are suspected to have the virus. 

If people stop wearing masks, hang out in crowds and don't wash their hands, modelers predict:

  • 12,355 people could be in the hospital with COVID-19 on March 13, 2021
  • New Jersey could see its peak of new cases on March 4, 2021, with 9,502 people contracting the virus in a day — well above the 3,000 to 4,000 per day during the peak last April
  • 2,725 ICU beds could be filled in mid-March, with 2,180 people on ventilators 

During a "moderate" second wave:

  • At most, 1,141 people could be in the hospital with COVID-19 at once. That is 11,214 fewer people than in the high peak scenario. 
  • At most, 839 new people could contract COVID-19 in a day, or 8,663 fewer than the worst case scenario. 
  • 251 COVID patients could be in the ICU, and 125 people on ventilators at most

At the height of the pandemic in April 2020, close to 10,000 people were in the hospital with COVID-19, and 1,700 patients were on ventilators. 

"It really is about staying as healthy as we can. Don't send your child to school if it seems like just a sniffle, it's about protecting yourself and your community," Silvera said. "Keep wearing your masks, washing your hands, social distancing."

Ashley Balcerzak is a reporter in the New Jersey Statehouse. For unlimited access to her work covering New Jersey’s legislature and political power structure, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

Email: balcerzaka@northjersey.com Twitter: @abalcerzak 

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