Coronavirus tests developed by Rutgers to be used for all residents at N.J. homes for disabled

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More than 5,500 saliva tests are headed to New Jersey’s developmental centers for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, where all residents and staff members will be tested for coronavirus, state officials announced Thursday.

The saliva-based test, developed by Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences, will be used to test 1,250 residents and 4,300 staff members at the five state-run facilities as early as next week, Gov. Phil Murphysaid during hisdaily coronavirus test briefing.

“These are among our most vulnerable residents, and the women and men who provide care for them daily are among our most essential workers,” said Murphy. “They are dedicated employees showing up 24/7 to help care for the adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, who call these centers, by the way, home."

As of Sunday, 113 residents and 135 staff members tested positive for coronavirus, including seven deaths of residents, according to state Department of Human Services data.

According to statistics from the Health Department:

  • Green Brook Regional Center in Somerset County: 17 residents and 68 staff members have tested positive, 4 residents died
  • New Lisbon Developmental Center in Burlington County: 55 residents and 20 staffers tested positive, 2 residents died
  • Hunterdon Developmental Center in Hunterdon County: 30 residents and 39 staff members tested positive, 1 resident died
  • Vineland Developmental Center in Cumberland County: 11 residents and 5 staffers have tested positive
  • Woodbine Developmental Center in Cape May County: 3 staffers have tested positive.

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The test uses saliva, rather than a swab that is inserted deep into the nose or throat, said Brian Strom, chancellor of Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences.

“Rutgers’ mission is to serve the public and we’re proud to partner with our state government to expand testing for all New Jerseyans, including our developmentally disabled community,” Strom said.

Some of these residents have lived there for decades, and seen their routines upended as social distancing standards were implemented. They haven’t been able to go on walks or regular family outings, Murphy noted.

The group homes changed their rules to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, department spokesman Tom Hester said, including closing day programs, allow families to hire workers to support their loved ones, restricting visitors, and enhancing cleaning and disinfecting.

PPE is also being delivered to the homes, including 20,500 surgical masks, 20,600 N95 masks and 52,000 pairs of gloves sent over the last week, Hester said.

The state hopes to expand testing to other state workers and daily testing can rapidly expand as equipment is on order, Strom said. Additionally, staff members at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick will also be tested.

Gwen Orlowski, executive director for the advocacy group Disability Rights New Jersey, praised the Murphy administration’s decision to test developmental center residents and employees.

“Through our virtual town halls and client calls, we know that the issue of universal testing was paramount for residents and their families. Only through testing could people be confident that the cohorting of residents would actually lead to the flattening the curve at the DCs, and ultimately, no new cases,” Orlowski said.

Orlowski said she hoped the state will expand testing to include the 24,000 people living in group homes and other community housing, as well as the contracted employees who look after them on the state’s behalf.

“We’ve spoken with the Division of Developmental Disabilities about these concerns in the past few weeks, and know they shared them,” she said.

“We’re particularly proud that our state university is a leader in developing and implementing this critical testing," she added.

Murphy has called the saliva test a“game-changer” that can double the amount of daily testingdone in the state, and up to 10,000 people a day will be tested as soon as next week. The governor has previously said the state needs to double its testing before it can reopen.

The new COVID-19 test developed at Rutgers got emergency approval by the Food and Drug Administration and has already been used as of last week.

As of Thursday, 99,989 positive cases of the coronavirus in and 5,368 people have died in New Jersey.

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Sophie Nieto-Munoz may be reached at snietomunoz@njadvancemedia.com. Follow her at @snietomunoz.

Susan K. Livio may be reached at slivio@njadvancemedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @SusanKLivio.