Montgomery & COVID: An Assessment After Stage 1
By Stephanie Carey, Montgomery Health Officer
As New Jersey transitions from “Stage 1” to “Stage 2” in its response to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is a good time to take stock of how our own township, Montgomery, has fared. Over the next two weeks, many “non-essential” businesses will be opening in town, and residents will be venturing out more to patronize our local businesses, and to return to some semblance of normalcy.
However, it will be a “new normal,” in which residents will need to remain vigilant about social distancing, mask wearing, and avoiding large groups. Otherwise, we could find ourselves with many new cases—and fatalities. Please take the advice of the Montgomery Board of Health and exercise caution as you approach this next stage of the pandemic.
How Has Montgomery Fared?
With 109 confirmed cases of illness and 7 deaths in mid-June due to COVID-19, nobody can feel good about the pain that many Montgomery families suffered over these several months. Each case represents a family that suffered enormous anxiety, stretches of isolation, and, in some cases, heartbreak. Yet when you compare Montgomery to other areas, we fared much better than most communities, for a variety of reasons, including the generally excellent compliance of our residents with CDC guidance and New Jersey state orders.
The chart below look at comparisons of the number of cases relative to population. Montgomery Township has had 4.7 COVID cases for every 1,000 residents, which is about one-fourth the rate statewide (18.8) and one-third the Somerset County rate (14.4). Our rate of cases also is lower than every one of our major neighboring towns.
The rate of death per 1,000 population was .3, meaning we had about 1 death for every 3,000 people in town, as shown in the next chart. That compares well to the state and county averages, including our neighboring towns. As in other places, those who have succumbed to the disease in Montgomery have tended to be over the age of 65.
Reasons Montgomery Has Done Comparatively Well
There are many reasons why Montgomery has done better than many other places. Factors include distance from the outbreak epicenter in New York City, and from commuter lines; an affluent population that generally was able to work from home; and compliance with social distancing and masking rules and guidelines. The fact that we did well relative to our similar neighboring towns is consistent with the idea that resident adherence to guidelines was at least partly responsible, and reason we should take some pride in weathering the first wave of the pandemic.
Race/Ethnicity and Local COVID
Unfortunately, despite our overall success in fighting COVID-19, the pattern of disease in Montgomery reflects the same race and ethnicity disparities that have been measured across the country, as shown in the chart below. When you add up the African American, Hispanic, and mixed-race residents of Montgomery, they represent 30% of COVID-19 cases, despite representing only 10% of our population. These black and brown residents had triple the risk of other people in testing positive for COVID-19. This was due to several factors, including lower-paying jobs that cannot be done from home, and more “front line” jobs in essential retail and health care environments.
Health patterns such as the one we see nationwide and here in Montgomery are reasons why the racism has been named a public health problem by the American Public Health Association. It’s also a reason the Montgomery Township Committee on June 4 passed a resolution condemning all acts of racism and calling for a dialogue, unity, and healing. It may be tempting to feel Montgomery is immune from these national problems, but, regrettably, we are not.
Public health officials in recent months have emphasized the importance of wearing masks to protect members of our families and our community. It is something we do as a sign that we care about each other—now and for the foreseeable future. At the same time, we are learning there is another form of “taking care” that must guide our government and how each of us lives our life. We must all work hard to make sure we protect everyone, equally and justly, regardless of race, ethnicity, socio-economic status. As we move forward, we seek to build the resilience of our entire community, especially those who are most vulnerable, to assure a healthier, more equitable future.