Officials in New Jersey this week ramped up the pressure on the state’s nursing homes, with the attorney general announcing a new anonymous abuse tip line and the governor promising regulatory changes stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The industry does not have it within themselves to make the changes they need. If they had, they would have done it already,” Gov. Phil Murphy said during a Tuesday press conference. “I want to be definitive and unambiguous on that, and change will be coming.”
Long-term care operators in the Garden State have been under the media microscope for weeks now, particularly in the wake of a New York Times report about a wave of deaths at a facility in rural Andover — a property that, later reporting revealed, had a connection to the defunct Skyline Healthcare chain.
More than half of the state’s COVID-19 deaths are linked to long-term care facilities, the governor said during the press conference. As part of a previously announced statewide investigation into nursing homes, spearheaded by attorney general Gurbir Grewal, the state this week also launched an anonymous online portal where residents and family members can make reports of alleged abuse, neglect, or other misconduct.
“I certainly understand that for many of these facilities, this was the equivalent of a 500-year flood. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t examine how folks responded when those floodwaters started to rise,” Grewal said. “And it also doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t examine how they operated before that flood — if they cut corners, if they, or anyone for that matter, ignored red flags or warnings, if they lied to regulators or others, if they put profits over patients.”
During the same press conference, state health commissioner Judy Persichilli highlighted some of the distinct challenges that operators in the space have faced amid the pandemic. A push to test 4,000 residents of long-term care facilities in southern New Jersey revealed that 24.4% of residents and 9.75% of staff members were positive — most of whom did not display any symptoms, according to Persichilli.
That sample was part of a pilot conducted in conjunction with Cooper University Hospital in Camden, N.J.; over the next two weeks, Cooper and the state health officials will attempt to test residents at 74 more long-term care facilities throughout the state.
Asymptomatic spread has been known as a key driver of COVID-19 outbreaks in long-term care facilities since late March, but a lack of access to testing has forced operators to rely on less-effective screening methods such as temperature checks and symptom questionnaires.
Coupled with skyrocketing costs for personal protective equipment (PPE) — when such items are even available in the open market — many operators have struggled to manage the spread of the disease within their facilities.
Jonathan Dolan, president and CEO of the Health Care Association of New Jersey, praised the state government’s recent push to provide additional resources for the state’s nursing homes, a significant portion of which his organization represents.
“We welcome the additional staffing, increased PPE, and especially the move to universal testing the governor promised yesterday, all of which we have needed for some time,” Dolan said in an e-mail to SNN. “We are entrusted with the care of the state’s elderly and frail population. We appreciate any assistance the state can provide under these challenging circumstances, particularly because it will enable us to dedicate resources to care for our residents and communicate more effectively with their families.”
Murphy acknowledged that not all providers had made preventable or deliberate errors in responding to the COVID-19 crisis, and that the problems facing New Jersey’s long-term care operators are widespread.
“We know this is an issue not unique to New Jersey; it is truly a national issue,” the governor said. “And while we know there are many good actors who will do all they can to protect their residents and staff, unfortunately, we also know that there are bad actors in this industry. We hope the solutions we find here in New Jersey can be a national model for mitigation, protection, and resiliency, whether it be for COVID-19 or a future pandemic.”