As the global COVID-19 pandemic continues, few states have done a more admirable job of flattening the curve than one of the hardest-hit parts of the world: New Jersey.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Scott Reynolds is a New Jersey native and lifelong resident who has spent much of his career working in the fields of journalism and public service. What follows constitutes his opinions and his alone.

The first time I saw the message displayed on one of those huge electronic billboards looming over the dozen lanes of I-287, despite having heard it on the airwaves and online and on television for weeks, it was still sort of jarring.

“Don’t be a knucklehead,” the New Jersey Department of Transportation-run sign advised.

It’s certainly not the first thing that came to mind when the notion hit that a populist anti-COVID-19 slogan might emerge in my native state, New Jersey, where I have lived and worked my entire life. It sounds more like a throwaway remark a gangster’s henchman might make in a black-and-white B-movie from the 1950s. But we in the Garden State have become accustomed to more than a few odd sights and sounds during the last few months.

The phrase was coined by our indefatigable Governor, Phil Murphy, for none other than the simple purpose of trying to emphasize to John Q. Citizen the vital importance of social distancing, staying at home, and flattening the curve in a state with 161,545 cases of COVID-19 as of this writing, sadly resulting in 11,770 deaths. If New Jersey were its own country (and a good number of us would argue that it more or less is), that would place it 11th globally in cases, just behind Turkey and just ahead of Iran. It would be seventh globally in total deaths, just behind Spain and just ahead of Mexico.

But those four actual countries average out to about 85 million people living in 475,000 square miles apiece. New Jersey has barely 9 million people living in a grand total of 8,722 square miles, making it the most densely populated state in the nation by a good margin. Bergen County, the most populous in the state and the hardest hit by the virus, has a population density of 3,700 people per square mile – more than triple what you’d find in a Midwestern city such as, say, Oklahoma City.

It’s for those reasons that when COVID-19 was looking to win a foothold in the U.S., with cases streaming into the New York City metropolitan area’s three major airports from European points of origin, it found what it was looking for.

It’s also why tales of heroism – there is no other adequate word here – have emerged from New Jersey’s hospitals and medical centers, which have bent but not broken under the strain of the virus. At our peak there were about 8,000 COVID-19 patients hospitalized in New Jersey (a number that has fallen below 2,400), including about 2,000 in intensive care (now down to 639) and 1,700 on ventilators (now down to 459). The virus’s R0 reproduction rate, which peaked at an alarming 5.31 in mid-March, was driven down below 1 by mid-April and has stayed under 1 ever since (though up slightly in the last week, rising to 0.88 from 0.81).

The day-to-day experiences of frontline healthcare workers have been harrowing, although the word doesn’t even do it justice – just ask Dr. Phillip Angello, MD, who left his family practice to volunteer to treat COVID patients at a Central Jersey hospital.

“As a doctor, you are supposed to have all the answers, but I have seen 80-year-olds come through like champs and 30-year-olds end up on vents and 50-year-olds die, and I really don’t know what tomorrow will hold for each patient, as we do the best we can,” Angello wrote last month in a column for Monitor Mondays’ Frontline Friday series. “You read about doctors who commit suicide. I do not know them, yet I feel I do. I know they were truly dedicated and caring people who lost themselves to this darkness that says, ‘you are not enough.’”

“But I have found that the way to fight this is to rejoice in the little victories each day. No, you cannot wave a magic wand and fix everybody or save everybody or know all ends, but you can still help people and be there for your patients and their families,” Angello added. “You can help them focus on the positive and provide comfort, even if it is only empathy, through the negative. Your words and actions can be medicine. You can hold their hand. You can arrange FaceTime visits with their families. You can arrange for them to stop by the ICU, on their way out of the hospital, to see family still there. You could try adjusting the oxygen or try different modalities like proning (flipping them on their bellies, opening airspace), and you keep them from going back on the vent! The little joys and victories, the patients you have seen get well, are the steady knock that cracks the mountain, and you will find the light and joy in this darkness.”

I personally have almost lost count of how many people I know who have received a positive diagnosis, but for some reason, the next number in line always sticks. I’m now up to 29; thankfully, only one failed to recover, but several others came close.

Governor Murphy started holding daily press briefings on the situation in March, only skipping Sundays, and in doing so, he has gotten into the daily habit of honoring the memories of three “blessed souls,” as he calls those lost to the virus. Photos of those lost are shared on a large digital screen, with a few personal memories shared by loved ones. It’s touching without being maudlin.

And, of course, Murphy has rolled up his sleeves and loosened his tie at appropriate times, too – hence his unabashed and unhesitant public shaming of “knuckleheads.” A Democratic politician who entered office to lukewarm reception – in great part due to his sharing a key characteristic, being a multimillionaire former Goldman Sachs executive, with former Governor Jon Corzine, who was so reviled by the end of his term that a thoroughly blue state then went with Republican Chris Christie – he has even been embraced by the Garden State’s markedly blue-collar middle class, with his approval rating soaring to an unprecedented 77 percent.

It’s not easy succeeding in New Jersey’s public eye, as any of those governors would tell you. Authenticity, aptitude, and attitude are demanded, and without them, your voice gets lost. Michael Gold of the New York Times nailed it earlier this year when he penned a feature about Megan Coyne and Pearl Gabel – the two women who run the state’s official yet wildly irreverent and colorful Twitter account, @NJGov.

“They are all too aware that New Jersey has often been derided as ‘the armpit of America’ and ridiculed for the odor that the moniker implies. Though they both identify as ‘Jersey girls,’ they know that phrase calls up a stereotype that many residents deeply resent,” Gold wrote. “They realize that when outsiders reference ‘dirty Jersey,’ it’s not generally a term of endearment. The first glimpse of the state for many visitors is a trip from Newark Liberty International Airport along aging highways that pass a vast and unattractive industrial waterfront.”

So they made their thick skin part of their online persona. Among the duo’s posts, Gold notes, are “needling jabs at neighboring states, an emoji-filled outline of New Jersey that launched a bagel war, and New Jersey-specific twists on beloved memes, including a picture of the much-adored Baby Yoda holding the Garden State that has become @NJGov’s profile picture.”

The tweet heard around the world from @NJGov, which more or less put it on the map, was a terse two-word response to a user who last year asked in bewilderment, “who let New Jersey have a Twitter?”

“Your mom,” the state’s official account replied.

In a day, its followers tripled.

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