Mask and social distancing mandates have mostly been lifted, and as the COVID metrics continue to improve, many Garden State residents are feeling a sense of relief the pandemic may finally be nearing an end.

But the experts are offering a word of warning, noting that that serious COVID-19 complications are spreading among younger people who have not been vaccinated.

According to Dr. Martin Blaser, infectious disease expert and director of the Center for Advanced Biotechnology and Medicine at Rutgers University, the COVID vaccines have been a game-changer, a lot of progress has been made, and for the next few months we’re going to be in a very good period.

“I don’t think COVID is gone," he adds, saying that people continue to be hospitalized. "The question is how high will it raise its ugly head? That will be determined by how many people are vaccinated.”

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He said virus variants remain a "wild card" and they could mean a return of social distancing if a new vaccine is needed.

"Right now the vaccines seem to be able to cope with the variants but the variants may continue to vary that people are only partially protected for," he said.

Dr. Henry Redel, an infectious disease expert with the Saint Peters Healthcare System, agrees the COVID danger is not gone for good.

“We have to keep our guard ready if we start seeing upticks in cases and upticks in hospitalizations,” he said. "The needle is moving towards normalcy but we’re not fully there yet. People who are not vaccinated: it’s probably safer if they are wearing masks.”

Dr. Redel stressed the key to keeping COVID at bay is to increase vaccination rates.

“People over 30 or 40, I’m seeing them in the hospital right now and most of them either hadn’t gotten vaccinated yet or were not planning to. That’s where the risk comes in,” he said.

Dr. Blaser agrees.

“Essentially all the illness now is happening in unvaccinated people,” he said. “People are beginning to understand this isn’t some trick or political thing; it’s a matter of their health and their safety.”

He said there’s a good chance those who have been vaccinated will need a booster shot by next winter.

Dr. Redel said if there is a resurgence of the virus in October or November it won’t overwhelm the healthcare system because the most vulnerable groups in our population, the older New Jerseyans, have very high rates of vaccination.

He said the variants could definitely pose a threat down the road but “the nice thing about these mRNA vaccines is they can tweak the recipe pretty easily and have a booster vaccine available that’s safe and effective.”

These NJ towns have the highest rates of sexually transmitted diseases

Looking at data compiled by the Department of Health in 2019, the most recent year for which reports are available, we determined the rate of STDs for 1,000 people in every municipality. The data combines reports of chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis. For a different look, you can check out this article for a list of New Jersey towns that saw the highest increase in STD/STI cases in recent years.