By Nathan Layne and Jessica Resnick-Ault
(Reuters) – New Jersey’s governor on Thursday ordered a probe into long-term care facilities after a “makeshift morgue” was found at a nursing home devastated by the novel coronavirus, raising questions about the death toll at homes for the elderly.
Phil Murphy said he asked his attorney general to launch the wide-ranging investigation after becoming “outraged that bodies of the dead were allowed to pile up” in a room at a nursing home in Andover, a town in the northern part of the state.
The probe comes as officials across the United States grapple with mounting deaths at nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, where the virus can spread like wildfire and has proven especially deadly given the age of the residents, who are often living close together and cared for by the same staff.
“You have people who by definition are medically fragile and at risk and you add to that this terrible virus,” said Laurie Facciarossa Brewer, the New Jersey state ombudsman for long-term care facilities. “It’s hitting crisis proportions now.”
The incident that sparked the investigation occurred at Andover Subacute and Rehabilitation Center I and II, where several bodies were found in a makeshift morgue at the facility. A total of 66 residents of the nursing home have died, half of whom were confirmed COVID-19 cases, according to a spokeswoman for New Jersey’s health department.
“The backup and after hours holiday weekend issues, plus more than average deaths, contributed to the presence of more deceased than normal in the facility holding room,” facility co-owner Chaim Sheinbaum said in a statement provided by the Andover police department.
“The staff was overwhelmed by the number of bodies,” Andover Police Chief Eric Danielson told reporters, adding that his officers helped move 13 bodies to a refrigerated trailer at another medical site.
New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal said on Thursday his office was investigating the high number of deaths at certain nursing homes and other long-term care facilities in the state following a cluster of fatalities at the Andover facility.
New Jersey is not alone. More than 21,000 residents and staff at long-term care facilities have contracted COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus, and some 3,800 have died, according to a tally by the New York Times.
In Florida, officials have been scrambling to stop the pandemic’s spread through the state’s massive elderly population while also clamping down on details about its effect on the huge network of retirement homes. As of Thursday morning there were 1,394 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among patients and staff at the state’s nearly 4,000 elder care facilities.
Florida, along with California and Texas, has the highest number of residents who are over the age of 65 and most at-risk from the virus. DeSantis earlier this week called in the Florida National Guard to form so-called strike teams to conduct spot coronavirus tests. The teams so far found at least one resident or staff member test positive at 93 facilities.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said on Thursday that nursing homes were “ground zero” in the fight against the virus, with nursing homes accounting for 29 of the day’s 606 newly reported deaths in the state.
At a daily briefing on Thursday, West Virginia Governor Jim Justice said the national guard and health officials had been sent to investigate a problem at a long-term facility in Jackson County in the western part of the state. He did not provide details but said the incident troubled him.
“These are the most vulnerable of the vulnerable,” Justice said. “I’m going to get to the bottom of this.”
On Wednesday, a bipartisan group of New Jersey’s Congressional delegation called on U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar to request that the U.S. Public Health Service deploy men and women to assist with critical staffing needs at long-term care facilities in their state.
As the problems mount, relatives are often left feeling helpless. Brewer, the New Jersey ombudsman, said calls to her office tripled over the weekend as families struggled to get information about loved ones from facilities that may be too stretched to respond in a timely manner. The same thing has been seen in other states.
Laura-Lynne Powell, 59, of Sacramento, California, found herself pushing from across the country to get a COVID-19 test for her mother at a facility in West Hartford, Connecticut.
“We wanted to make sure if it took her, that she doesn’t end up around the uncounted dead,” Powell said. “We’re never going to know how this disease took an entire generation away from us,” she said. “If it took mom I have to know – we all do.”
(Reporting by Nathan Layne in Wilton, Connecticut, Maria Caspani and Jessica Resnick-Ault in New York, and Zachary Fagenson in Miami; Editing by Daniel Wallis)