There are mixed messages from the Murphy administration about the COVID mutant threat to New Jersey.

Just a week after announcing capacity increases for indoor dining and other businesses, Gov. Phil Murphy announced a "pause" on easing further restrictions due to the rise of COVID-19 mutations.

Murphy and State Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli sounded the alarm this week. Persichilli warned the state was bracing for a big spike in hospitalizations, saying, "We are acting as if a surge is happening tomorrow." The governor suggested a recent spike in the number of new positive tests and and increase in hospitalizations was connected to the rise in variants in the state.

As of Wednesday, state health officials has identified seven different COVID-19 mutations present in New Jersey. The dominant strain is the one first identified in the U.K., with more than 400 cases confirmed, but variants from South Africa, Brazil, New York and Californian have also been confirmed in New Jersey.

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While Murphy and Persichilli were still sounding the alarm, the state's chief medical advisor on COVID-19 seemed far less concerned. Dr. Eddie Bresnitz, who chairs New Jersey's COVID Professional Advisory Committee, said while it is true these mutations have "increased transmissibility," current vaccines appear to be effective at preventing serious illness and death.

Even as Murphy pauses the easing of more restrictions, he is pushing ahead with plans to reopen New Jersey schools this year and in the fall. The state is formally reducing social distancing rules from 6 feet to 3 feet between desks. That is in line with new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control.

Murphy also was firm in his insistence that no school will be permitted to offer remote learning as an option in the Fall.

"I want to be unequivocal about this," Murphy said at Wednesday's COVID briefing. "We are expecting Monday through Friday, in person (instruction) in every school, every district."

The New Jersey Education Association did not fully endorse those reopening plans, but said they were "optimistic."

Murphy had been saying that once 70% of the adult population was vaccinated, it would trigger a full reopening of New Jersey. As the state approaches that goal, the metrics Murphy is watching appear to be shifting. In the last few weeks, Murphy has moved focus from vaccinations to the variants as he considered when and how to ease restrictions.

More than 2.4 million residents are due for their second dose of Pfizer or Moderna vaccine. They should receive that dose before the end of April, putting New Jersey on pace to reach the full vaccination of 4.7 million adults by Memorial Day. In theory, that should trigger a full reopening of the state, but variants remain the wildcard and the biggest speed bump on Murphy's road to reopening New Jersey.

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