‘We Don't Live in Short Hills:' Newark Mayor, Fearful of COVID Trends, Eyes New Restrictions

"God help us," if the numbers in New Jersey's largest city turn worse than they were in the spring, Mayor Ras Baraka says

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The mayor of one of New Jersey's hardest-hit COVID cities says he knows household spread, which is becoming a more frequently cited source of new infections nationwide, is fueling rising rates in his own community.

People aren't heeding gathering size rules, Newark Mayor Ras Baraka says. There's lacking compliance overall from months upon months of COVID fatigue. And less wealthy communities like Newark, which also disproportionately are comprised of people of color, tend to have less medical and coping resources.

"Most in Newark don't have a primary care physician," Baraka said Thursday. "We don't live in Short Hills. We can't go into the basement to quarantine or the attic to quarantine -- so at the end of the day, we're spreading it in our households."

Under the worst-case projection models unveiled by Gov. Phil Murphy and state health officials this week, that doesn't appear likely to change anytime soon. Newark accounts for about 4 to 5 percent of all new cases expected to come over the next six weeks or so under that nightmare scenario. That scenario, which presumes no change in public compliance between now and early February, says daily cases could double in the next month or so. Hospitalizations would rise well above April peaks by early next year and wouldn't decline significantly until March.

"We were looking at maybe twice, three times what we saw in the beginning," Baraka said of the Newark projections, which were developed in concert with experts from Rutgers University and the New Jersey Institute of Technology. "We've just experienced probably the last couple of days the greatest tragedy this country has ever had -- and because we're in it, people are not seeing it that way."

"God help us" if it gets worse because they don't wake up, Baraka said. Newark is New Jersey's largest city and is already at the top of the list in terms of infection rates and fatalities. Most times that New Jersey reports a higher-than-average number of COVID deaths, Newark feels the brunt of it, Baraka added.

"In April, we were getting 30 people dead a day. I don't know how it can get any worse than that," the Democrat said. "Hospitals would be overrun. The death toll would grow no matter how good we are in the hospital."

New Jersey has seen some of its steepest viral increases in months -- some steeper than the initial surge, partly due to enhanced testing -- in the last 10 days. As of Thursday, it had reported more than 386,600 confirmed cases and 15,740 virus-related deaths. Essex County, home to Newark and one of 21 counties in the Garden State, has accounted for 10 percent of cases and 13 percent of deaths. Newark itself has seen 700 COVID-related deaths thus far.

Baraka, along with mayors in the neighboring cities of Orange, East Orange and Irvington, in implementing stringent new local restrictions by executive order, absent of sweeping new mandates from the governor's office. They have closed down streets; they have imposed curfews.

Baraka implemented a 10-day stay-at-home order last month -- and wishes he had taken more drastic actions like were recently taken in parts of California.

As Gov. Phil Murphy urges against non-essential travel, New Jersey's biggest city is urging people to stay home for the next 10 days. NBC New York's Brian Thompson reports.

Baraka told News 4 Thursday he may have to implement new rules soon, given current trends. That includes approaching the mayors of nearby cities, one of whom just tested positive for COVID-19, about possibly proposing a two-to-three-week statewide lockdown to the governor's office. He hopes that'll happen soon.

In the meantime, determining how best to move forward is a daily challenge.

"This virus is out of control. It's like every man for himself, that's where we are," Baraka said. "We're out here on our own trying to figure out a pandemic in your city by yourself on your own with the local resources you have."

While the imminent prospect of a vaccine is welcome news, Baraka knows getting the people in his historically underserved community -- and those in similar neighboring communities -- will be a difficult undertaking. Trust is paramount, and he represents people who have been institutionally undermined for centuries.

"We Black and Brown people are most likely to get [COVID] and most likely to die and the least likely to take the vaccine," Baraka said, adding he plans to take it himself -- and publicly -- to send a message. "You have to take it seriously."

New Jersey expects to get thousands of Pfizer doses as early as next week if the FDA grants emergency use authorization Thursday as expected.

A Food and Drug Administration advisory panel will vote today on whether to recommend approval of the U.S.' first COVID-19 vaccine. Pfizer's Michigan plant is ready to ship thousands of doses to more than 600 sites nationwide, pending approval.
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