Six teenagers who attended a Sussex County graduation party have tested positive and 24 more are under investigation for the novel coronavirus, according to the Sussex County Division of Health.
The news comes just a day after Gov. Phil Murphy condemned large house parties in the state that have been linked to an increase in COVID-19 cases.
An uptick in infections from Friday to Sunday — an increase of 20 cases, or an average of nearly seven a day — were due in part to a “community cluster” the division has now linked to the party, officials told the New Jersey Herald on Thursday. A “community cluster” refers to three or more individuals who do not live together and test positive for COVID-19 after being linked to a common event or place.
Of those who tested positive, five were Sussex County residents and a sixth was from out of county. While the out-of-county resident’s information was not provided, the division identified the Sussex cases as three 18-year-old women, a 17-year-old girl and a 17-year-old boy.
County Health Officer Jim McDonald declined to release the date and location of the party to avoid identifying the individuals, he said. He also did not provide the municipalities where the teenagers reside.
But data released by the county division on Monday showed the following municipalities had residents who tested positive from Friday through Sunday: Byram (six); Green, Sparta and Vernon (three cases each); Frankford, Hampton, Hardyston, Hopatcong, and Montague (one case each).
The 24 individuals under investigation are considered “close contacts” after the division performed contact tracing with those who tested positive.
The state Department of Health has been notified of the cluster, McDonald said.
Since July 1, a total of 101 Sussex County residents have tested positive for COVID-19, with a daily average of roughly four per day. The most reported in a single day was seven while several days had zero. There has been a single death — an 83-year-old male from Andover Township — this month that is attributed to the virus. An additional death was confirmed that dated from June 10.
Murphy, in the opening minutes of his coronavirus briefing on Wednesday, criticized those gathering for parties, stating they were breeding grounds for the virus’ spread.
Over the past few weeks, parties in Middletown and Long Beach Island have been linked to more than 80 new COVID-19 cases. A separate gathering in Jackson on Sunday night, where cops spent hours breaking up 700-person party inside a mansion, has sparked fears that the cases may rise.
Murphy said that while he understood being inside for months under stay-at-home orders would make residents want to “blow off steam,” but crowded house parties “are not safe.”
“They’ve put the hard work we’ve all undergone together, the millions of us since March, at risk of being undone,” he said.
The recent hot weather has forced people inside into air conditioning, creating a dangerous setting for the virus to easily spread, the governor said.
The parties have contributed to a statewide increase in cases recently, with 1,761 new infections reported in the past four days.
State rules now allow gatherings, but officials advise hosts to keep them small, with tables and chairs spread apart. State Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli said attendees should limit sharing utensils and other household items and keep a list of guests in case someone later tests positive.
But getting younger people to heed that advice has proven difficult, according to health officials.
While the increase in teen cases in Sussex County hasn’t been too dramatic recently — a 1% rise between June and July, statewide the percentage of positive tests among people aged 18 to 29 have nearly doubled from April to July.
McDonald reminded residents that even individuals experiencing no symptoms can spread the virus. If a host of a party or gathering finds out an attendee has tested positive, the host should inform all attendees, he said.
Anyone in direct contact with someone with COVID-19 should monitor themselves for symptoms, practice good hand hygiene and quarantine for 14 days, McDonald added.
Lori Comstock can also be reached on Twitter: @LoriComstockNJH, on Facebook: www.Facebook.com/LoriComstockNJH or by phone: 973-383-1194.