For the past month, New Jersey has been averaging close to 5,000 new COVID-19 cases a day, hospitalizations have been slowly on the rise, more patients are in intensive care, and deaths keep mounting.

And yet the rate of transmission, the RT, continues to slowly trend downward.

It’s now at 0.97, which indicates the infection rate is decreasing even as total cases and deaths keep going up, slowly but surely.

According to Dr. Ed Lifshitz, the director of communicable disease services for the state Department of Health, said the RT is essentially a look back at the past seven days and it tells us the rate of change that is taking place. That will be reflected in the hospitalization rate.

“My hope is that what we are seeing is that we are now cresting near the top of the curve and we will begin to hopefully see it begin to drop down again,” he said.

He pointed out we’re testing many more people for the coronavirus now than we were in the spring and “if you have a whole lot of cases and they’re staying the same, the RT is going to be 1, if you have very few cases and they’re staying the same, the RT is going to be 1.”

Public health experts say that keeping the RT at or below 1 is the goal because anything above means the virus is rapidly spreading.

In March and April, when the RT was higher than 5, infection rates and hospitalizations shot up dramatically like an express elevator.

“This time, I believe largely because of all the factors that are in place now, all the things people are doing — wearing masks, being cautious, all those sorts of things — instead of taking that elevator ride up we’ve been taking that stairway up," he said.

“We’ve been increasing very gradually,” Lifshitz added. “And as it (the RT) begins to fall down to 1 and below 1, I expect that we are going to begin coming down (hospitalizations) as well.”

He explained the RT can be trending downward even if the official death count goes up because “the deaths are a lagging indicator, meaning, unfortunately, as things begin to look better, deaths will increase. But the deaths are nowhere near where they were back in the spring.”

Gov. Phil Murphy said while the RT trend is encouraging, if people get sloppy over the next few weeks or so and decide to get together with friends and loved ones, infection rates could spike.

“We want to warn everybody that the hospital system is the main focus here,” he said. “We cannot let it get overrun."

He added that “this year cannot be the year for the large Christmas for family and friends. I hate even saying that, I hate hearing it, it’s lousy for all of us but that’s the way it’s got to be.”

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