NEWARK, N.J. (CBSNewYork)COVID-19 cases are rising once again in the Garden State, despite more than 3.5 million vaccine doses in the arms of residents.

CBS2’s Meg Baker spoke Thursday with experts who are fearful of a third wave of the pandemic.

More than 2,000 people are currently hospitalized in the state, the highest number in more than a month. Shereef Elnahal, the president and CEO of University Hospital in Newark, said he is concerned by the increase.

“Unfortunately, I do think if there is in fact an issue with variants causing increased spread or whatever the other causes are, our community will be hit first and will be hit harder,” Elnahal said.

COVID VACCINE

More than 1.3 million people are fully vaccinated in the state, but as Dr. Perry Halkitis, the dean of Rutgers University’s School of Public Health, pointed out the vaccine is not going to solve the problem overnight. The state and the country need to get to herd immunity so the disease can stop spreading. New Jersey has only vaccinated 14% of the population. Halkitis said it needs to get to 70%.

“You have protection, but the antibodies take, you know, a couple of weeks’ time to get fully, fully integrated into the immune system,” Halkitis said.

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Officials say variants are very contagious and people are reducing their mitigation strategies when it comes to masking and gathering.

“After a year of trying to maintain behaviors, you give people an inch and they take a mile,” Halkitis said.

The fear is those factors and spring break travel may create a third wave.

“We cannot control what happens in states like Texas and Mississippi that have basically abandoned any public health strategy. Those people can travel to your airport. You can bring disease into our state,” Halkitis said.

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Baker asked for advice for people who may want to travel for spring break.

“I would advise against it. You know, I know that folks are fatigued and they want to have fun again. I think the summer could be an opportunity to do that, but all of that depends on our ability to prevent cases from spreading again,” Elhanal said.

The spring holidays are coming up and health officials are asking families to continue to practice safe strategies so loved ones are not infected. COVID-19 is still a very real thing.

Officials said the state expects to receive a 20% increase in vaccine doses next week.

CBS2’s Meg Baker contributed to this report

CBSNewYork Team