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First Atlantic, Cape COVID-19 cases have ties to NYC

After escaping it for weeks, Atlantic and Cape May counties are now dealing with cases of COVID-19, while Cumberland County is facing the possibility of infected medical professionals spreading it there.

Three cases of COVID-19 were announced Wednesday in Atlantic County, and one in Cape May County, while the total number of New Jersey cases increased to 427 from 267 Tuesday, with five deaths.

The local cases involved people who have spent extensive time in New York City.

The new cases were announced less than 24 hours after Inspira Medical Center Vineland said two medical workers in radiation oncology and surgical services tested positive for the virus.

Inspira did not respond to multiple requests for information on how it was changing hospital practices in the wake of the diagnoses, or about whether the two Glassboro residents had traveled internationally or to domestic hot spots like New York City. Other news outlets reported they had a history of international travel.

The Cape May County case is a 30-year-old male visiting from New York City, fueling county officials who have been asking out-of-towners not to visit during the health crisis.

“The man was not hospitalized and is self-quarantined in the county now. He will be monitored by our health department,” said county spokesman DenisBrown. “The case is the first one our county health department is handling.”

On Wednesday morning, an Atlantic County spokesperson said a county man in his 60s with underlying medical conditions and a history of travel to New York City had tested positive for COVID-19. Later in the day the spokesperson said two 27-year-olds — a man and a woman — had also tested positive.

None of the three Atlantic County cases was hospitalized. They are being quarantined and monitored, officials said. Direct contacts will be notified and asked to self-quarantine for 14 days as directed by guidelines issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Atlantic County officials said the 60-year-old man has only presented a potential risk in the county to his family members, “but they were not exposed because he was not in Atlantic County while infectious,” county spokeswoman Linda Gilmore said.

Gilmore said the man was diagnosed while outside Atlantic County, and the test was administered by a health care provider, not a hospital.

“While this is unfortunate news, it is not unexpected,” said county Executive Dennis Levinson. “All 50 states now have COVID-19 cases, and the numbers will increase as more testing occurs.”

Levinson said health officials continue to emphasize that 80% of cases will be mild or moderate with full recoveries expected.

“The deeper concern is for those with underlying health conditions or compromised immune systems,” he said.

Gov. Phil Murphy said at a news conference Wednesday the latest two fatalities from COVID-19 were of women over 60 with underlying medical conditions.

New positive cases had risen by 162 in just one day, with two removed from the total because they are out-of-state residents, Murphy said.

“It’s been a pretty steep curve as expected,” he said.

New Jersey also is expecting the return of nine asymptomatic New Jersey residents from the Grand Princess cruise ship that had been docked off San Francisco for quarantine, he said.

The novel coronavirus has been diagnosed in residents from ages 5 to 95, Murphy said. The top five counties for COVID-19 cases are Bergen with 113, Essex, 45; Middlesex, 40; Hudson, 34; and Monmouth, 32.

UPDATED: Restaurants closed and other event, closing information due to COVID-19

Murphy repeated his ban on gatherings or events featuring more than 50 people and stressed that includes private gatherings.

Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli said the state had identified 260 additional hospital beds that would be available Wednesday, the majority in the northern half of the state where most of the positive cases are centered.

Murphy said drive-through testing would begin in Bergen County, the state’s hardest-hit area, by Friday and testing in Holmdel, Monmouth County, is expected to begin next week.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Priest flies Blessed Sacrament over Camden Diocese as COVID-19 spreads

The Blessed Sacrament and a statue of the Virgin Mary flew around the perimeter of the Diocese of Camden on Wednesday afternoon — a two-hour round trip in a Cessna 182. 

Father Anthony Manuppella, pastor of St. Gianna Beretta Molla Parish in Northfield, prayed from the plane for God's blessing and protection as the new coronavirus spread across New Jersey and the world.

In an interview before takeoff, Manuppella drew parallels to popes who processed through the streets of Italian cities when the plague marched across Europe, killing millions.

Popes said the Litany of Saints and accompanying prayers meant to ward off the plague, famine and other disasters, Manuppella said. He did the same Wednesday from the air.

"I'm going to pray with Jesus and Mary for all the people in our diocese, that they're protected against this virus ... and for healing," Manuppella said. "And we're praying for deliverance from this virus, just as they did in the Middle Ages and Renaissance time, when the plague from time to time would rear its ugly head."

In the parking lot of the Northfield church, parishioners praying decades of the Rosary — and keeping 6 feet of distance between each other — saw Manuppella off as he was picked up from the parish rectory early Wednesday afternoon. A fellow priest, Father John Seo, joined him on the trip.

They met the co-pilot, John DeCastra, a parishioner whose wife saw a video of the Italian Air Force running a similar mission. He got in touch with another Catholic pilot, and they set up the flight from Atlantic City International Airport. A mini bottle of holy water was placed up front, brought by the pilot.

"(This is) absolutely a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," DeCastra said. "You get to fly all the time, but to have the Blessed Sacrament in the back of it, doing an important mission such as this — it's a thing that rarely comes around."

Manuppella, draped in purple vestments, held the monstrance aloft and chanted in Latin as he made his way across the tarmac. He squeezed into the back seats with Seo, as the pilot placed headsets on them. 

DeCastra was in a reserved mood moments before the flight. He's been praying as COVID-19 continues to infect people across the state, dominating news and shutting down businesses.

"It reminds us that God is in control and, at some point, there's nothing we can do," he said.

While they were in the air, Gov. Phil Murphy announced 162 new positive cases of the illness in New Jersey, bringing the state total to 427.

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Manuppella felt the journey would put his parishioners at ease. He wants to do his part, as doctors and officials work to contain the spread and minimize its impact. Parishioners in the parking lot, maybe feeling the uncertainty of the moment, asked the driver whether the pilot who would be taking their pastor up was top-notch. He was indeed, the driver assured them.

Extraordinary times call for divine measures, as Manuppella sees it. As long as everyone does what they are advised, the rest is in God's hands.

"This virus is beyond our control, as the president called it: an invisible illness, an invisible threat," Manuppella said. "So we're really like in a time of war, except that our enemy is more or less invisible. ... The weapons of prayer are, of course, extremely important at this time because it's so far above us, this virus. It's incomprehensible in many ways."

GALLERY: Priest blesses area from area plane amid COVID-19 pandemic

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Earliest spring in 124 years comes with very early bloom, too

The spring equinox will start at 11:49 p.m. Thursday in the Northern Hemisphere, the earliest since 1896. While we won’t see the sun Thursday night, we’re already experiencing very early signs of spring all around us.

Buds have been on the trees since late February, and plum cherries began to flower as early as the weekend of March 7 in spots. According to experts, this is near the earliest on record, and we’ll likely see more of this in the future.

Early spring

“This definitely feels extremely early to me. ... Cool season grasses, like orchard grass, and spring flowering bulbs were growing a lot earlier this year. I even heard a carpenter frog (the week of March 9),” said Bernie Issacson, forester for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.

It’s been 124 years since there’s been a spring equinox on March 19, said Geoff Chester, public affairs officer for the U.S. Naval Observatory, when Utah became a state and the Ford Quadracycle went to market, kicking off the automobile industry.

jmartucci-pressofac / JOE MARTUCCI Press Meteorologist  

Trees are already budding, very early in the season. Feb. 25, 2020

According to the USA National Phenology Network’s ”Leaf Out” on Wednesday, South Jersey has been from about 16 days ahead of schedule inland to nearly a month ahead between Long Beach Island and Ocean City. Data have been kept since 1981.

“For South Jersey, it (having the earliest flowering bloom on record) may indeed be the case,” said Theresa Crimmins, director of the USA-NPN, who says the typical first leaf-out in the region is March 21.

This is based on the “Leaf Index,” which is representative of the leading edge of leaf activity early in the season, all based on citizen scientists.

“We have a lot of observations that people submit via Nature’s Notebook. ... It’s basically a program for tracking leaf-out and when flowers are blooming,” Crimmins said.

These observations are then compared to predictive models that indicate the start of flowers blooming and animal activity in the spring, based on daily minimum and maximum temperatures from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“For the earlier flowerers, like maples, they’re more sensitive to the accumulated heat, rather than sunlight,” Issacson said.

“Plants will respond more if you see a sequence of several warm days in a row,” Crimmins said.

February was the third mildest month since records began in 1895, according to the New Jersey State Climatologist. This past meteorological winter — December, January and February — was the sixth warmest in recorded history.

It’s not just South Jersey seeing earlier blooms.

“There’s huge swaths of the Southeast, Mississippi, Texas and Louisiana where it’s clearly the earliest on record,” Crimmins said.

Buds in February and flowers in early March likely will become the norm.

jmartucci-pressofac / ClimateCentral  

The change in average first date of spring leaf emergence from 1981 to 2019. Crimmins says that a "pattern is emerging" on earlier blooms.

“We’re seeing this pattern of consistently early leaf-out year after year. We can’t see a trend yet, but we can see a pattern emerging,” Crimmins said.

Hammonton only saw one night drop below 15 degrees this winter, the fewest since 1893, when records were first kept.

jmartucci-pressofac / Iowa Environmental Mesonet  

Hammonton, nestled in the Pine Barrens, saw one night below 15 degrees. That is the lowest in recorded history, which goes back to 1893. The dashed line shows the trend over time, indicating winters lacking severe cold will be more common in the future. 

The Pine Barrens may be threatened as a result.

“We’re going to have really big problems with the Southern Pine Beetle if this keeps up. It’s the most economically damaging forest pest species in the country. The really cold nights kill them,” Issacson said. “Our forests are perfectly primed to have a big outbreak.”

Press Meteorologist Joe Martucci's 7-Day Forecast

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Coronavirus pandemic highlights age-old war between summer residents and locals

The novel coronavirus pandemic has exposed a new fault line in the age-old, typically tongue-in-cheek war between summer residents and locals.

Wildwood resident Ron Flemming has been alarmed by the number of out-of-state license plates he’s seen in town recently. Second-home owners are piling into town, unloading luggage and bikes to ride out an outbreak of COVID-19 that has no clear end in sight.

Automobile traffic and foot traffic alike are higher than they are during a typical March, despite warnings from local, state and national officials to stay home and avoid interpersonal contact, Flemming said.

“I’m a little taken back at just how nobody’s taking any of this seriously,” Flemming said. “It’s like a weekend in early May, late April. ... We have a pandemic, I mean, come on. You’re supposed to be at home. The governor says you’re not supposed to be going out; you’re supposed to be staying put. And nobody seems to be abiding by that.”

Facebook groups are buzzing with arguments, often heated, between people who believe it’s their right as taxpayers to enjoy their shore escapes, and locals who are worried people are trafficking in the virus. Many residents are concerned that visitors are coming from areas with high rates of infection, such as Bergen County up north or Montgomery County in Pennsylvania.

Officials take the side of the locals. On Wednesday, the mayors of Wildwood, West Wildwood, Wildwood Crest and North Wildwood released a joint statement asking second home owners not to relocate, as business and municipal services have adequate staff and supplies for the offseason, not a sudden influx of people.

Cape May County freeholders are also urging out-of-state visitors to stay home and not travel to the county during the COVID-19 outbreak.

The first presumed positive case in the county was reported by the Cape May County Department of Health on Wednesday. A 30-year-old New York City man tested positive while visiting, the department said in a release.

The county is using his case to underline its stance that people should stay put.

“This information is a vivid reminder that out-of-state visitors should stay home and not travel to the county during this pandemic outbreak,” said Natalie Sendler, the county’s director of nursing. “Now is not the time to travel but to remain vigilant in following recommendations for social distancing and isolation.”

Freeholder Director Gerald Thornton said they should stay home in Pennsylvania or New York for the time being. An influx of visitors for the next two weeks will put a strain on grocery stores, Thornton said.

“We love all of our visitors from Pennsylvania, North Jersey, New York and farther away,” Thornton said. “But this is not the time to be visiting the shore as we try to focus resources needed during this pandemic to our residents.”

Officials are also concerned about putting an undue burden on Cape Regional Medical Center, Thornton said.

“We are hoping that people act responsibly now so we can minimize the health impacts in as short of a period of time as possible,” Thornton said. “It would be best if people could stay in their full-time residence for now as we address this current outbreak.”

Joan Frizzell, of Upper Dublin, in Pennsylvania’s Montgomery County, is a registered nurse and a professor at a private university. She’s had this week, her spring break, on her calendar for months. She didn’t come to her condo in Ocean City because of the spread of COVID-19, but it didn’t help that she had toilet paper and a freezer full of food.

She and a friend, a year-round Ocean City resident, got into an argument over her coming to the shore town.

She’s staying out of stores, spending her time grading papers and keeping her distance from other walkers on the Boardwalk.

At Broadley’s Plumbing, Heating & Air Conditioning in Marmora, there has been an influx of requests — about 50% — for restoring water service at shore homes, marketing manager Christina Tolson said.

Most years, requests start to come in closer to Easter, but requests from people with homes in Ocean City and Avalon, and other towns along the Cape, have noticeably increased in the past week, she said.

Tolson said the company is “fully operational” but taking precautions such as asking customers whether anyone in their household is sick, avoiding handshakes and other interpersonal contact.

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“We are surprisingly steadier than we thought we’d be,” Tolson said. “Broadley’s has always prided itself on responding in crisis. Normally, for us, it’s hurricanes and different weather patterns, but this time it’s the coronavirus.”

Monica Fanelli, of Ocean City, said Sunday night she saw people in town unpacking luggage from cars. She hasn’t seen the pace of life in town slowing down.

“The Ocean City Boardwalk’s been packed on the weekend. There were pictures, right in front of the Irish Pub in Atlantic City — they canceled the (St. Patrick’s Day) parade — but it was jammed wall-to-wall people,” Fanelli said. “I don’t think they understand. ... It’s a mess.”

Cherie Bendyna, of Ocean City, is stressed by the sudden influx of people in town. The grocery store she frequents has bare shelves, she said, and out-of-towners are exacerbating the situation. People should stay home and get to know their kids, she said.

“I’m tired of it. These people need to stay home,” Bendyna said. “They’re saying, ‘Everything’s closed at home.’ Well, there’s a reason! Stay at home. These people — I don’t get it.”

The request to self-isolate is not to protect yourself, but the vulnerable people in your life and community, she said.

“Everyone knows someone with asthma, cancer, lung problems,” Bendyna said. “You are not helping by going out.”

UPDATED: Restaurants closed and other event, closing information due to COVID-19