On April 15, The New York Times reported that after an anonymous tip, police found 17 bodies being stored in a shed outside the Andover Subacute and Rehabilitation Center, one of New Jersey’s largest nursing homes. They were among the 68 recent deaths linked to that long-term care facility, which has had a history of problems. The local police chief admitted, “I don’t know if I’m shocked by any means.” Which is understandable, because the situation was all too foreseeable.
One week earlier, New Jersey State Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli reported that Covid-19 had been found at 231 of the 375 nursing homes in the state, up from just 93 the week before. Government officials at all levels are offering thoughts – and too often, conflicting directives – about how to mitigate the coronavirus. The problem is, even with visitor bans, social distancing and stay-at-home directives, the virus continues to spread. More than 10% of New Jersey’s coronavirus fatalities so far have been nursing home residents.
At Governor Murphy’s briefing on April 14, Persichilli said that the problems at New Jersey’s long-term care facilities “continue to be of greatest concern to us.” Her department is trying to implement a statewide plan to transfer patients from nursing homes that cannot handle COVID-19 outbreaks or are not complying with guidelines. Unfortunately, there may be no place to put them: The health department has already had to prohibit 123 facilities from admitting patients. The fact is, there’s a good chance that COVID-19 is already present at every nursing home in the state – whether reported to the public or not. Yet even basic care requirements are currently at risk: The ombudsman’s office states there are “dozens of reports of facilities that are already facing serious staff shortages,” which will come as no surprise to anyone who has tried to call a nursing home recently to find out what’s happening.
On March 6 and again on April 4, the Department of Health reaffirmed guidance requiring nursing homes to advise residents, employees, and families of outbreaks at the facilities. Relatives, public officials and even nursing home union representatives are all complaining about a lack of transparency about what’s happening in New Jersey’s long-term care facilities. Despite these concerns about communication and oversight – and a long history of infection control issues in the nursing home industry – Governor Murphy recently signed an order limiting liability for malpractice relating to Covid-19 care.
What did the owners and operators of this facility, and other facilities in NJ, do to minimize this foreseeable risk?
On April 16, Governor Murphy expressed his “outrage” that “bodies of the dead were allowed to pile up” in Andover. Echoing what New Jersey’s laws have long held, Murphy explained: resident’s in long term care “deserve to be cared for with respect, compassion, and dignity.” Instead, the devastating disregard for dignity is palpably plain, the owners and operator’s response slipshod at best. Regrettably, for many, we now see that these facilities did too little and what little they did do came far too late.
Three Tips for Nursing Home Caregivers
If you’re worried about a loved one’s care in a New Jersey nursing home, here are three things you can do right now:
- Try to get help from any public official you can get through to. If you have a specific matter of concern or do not know what’s happening in a facility where your relative resides, seek out help at every level of government. Contact the New Jersey Department of Health (800-367-6543) or the New Jersey Long-Term Care Ombudsman (877-582-6995; firstname.lastname@example.org).
Try calling your congressional representative. And don’t forget about local town officials: After an outbreak caused 22 deaths at the Elizabeth Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, mayor Christian Bollwage got frustrated by the Center’s lack of response and called on State Attorney General Gurbir Grewal to take action.
- Keep your eyes open for potential problems. If you teleconference a relative or go for a window-visit, look for signs that your relative is receiving the care they deserve. Some problems will be obvious, for example, if you see a staff member without a face mask or gloves. Other issues may be less so, such as uncollected (and unsanitary) dishes in the corner of the room, or staff members’ inability to provide answers to your questions.
- Document, document, document: Whatever you see, whatever you hear, whatever you say to the facility and whatever they say back (or don’t say) in response. Put your specific concerns in an email or letter and send to the nursing home – then copy the Ombudsman or Department of Health for good measure. And continue to do so each time you receive new information or facts or make new observations.
Of course, your first concern at this time shouldn’t be about the nursing home’s legal liability – it should be about your loved one’s well-being. But at this time of crisis you can’t rely solely on overworked government officials to provide the oversight needed to ensure nursing homes provide proper care. Unfortunately, that oversight needs to come from you.
Thomas Howard is a founding partner at Howard Law, LLP. Our Hackensack, NJ based legal firm concentrates on nursing home neglect, medical malpractice, estate and probate, and business litigation. The firm also publishes Justice for Seniors, a caregiver guide to all forms of nursing home neglect and abuse.