Muriel Smith said her volunteer work at nursing homes and a county jail was suspended for months during the height of the pandemic. It was a necessary move to prevent the spread of the virus and protect her and the vulnerable people she encountered, she was told.
What Smith said she will never understand is how Gov. Phil Murphy and the state Department of Health could adopt a policy that allowed nursing home residents treated for COVID-19 in the hospital to return to long-term care facilities.
“When I heard in March the nursing homes were forced to take back patients from the hospital without tests, I knew something terrible was going to happen,” said Smith, a Monmouth County resident.
Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli issued a directive on March 31 that said long-term care facilities should accept residents returning from the hospital, but only if the facility had the room and staff to create a separate wing. The state also offered alternative housing if nursing homes did not have the space to segregate residents, Persichilli has noted. Within a week of the March 31 directive, 200 nursing homes reached out to the state and said they could not accept residents back, according to the state Health Department.
Smith told her story to a panel of Republican lawmakers Friday who shared the view that the Democratic governor’s administration and its policies made the pandemic worse.
“Trust us - the members of this committee are listening to you,” Sen. Joseph Pennacchio, R-Morris, said at the conclusion of the four-hour virtual hearing.
The pandemic has taken the lives of 7,924 long-term care center residents and employees in New Jersey, representing nearly 38% of all coronavirus deaths, according to health department-confirmed figures. The state has ranked at or near the top for having the most per capita long-term care fatalities in the nation.
Last May, as the scope of the nursing home crisis grew and the death toll mounted, both Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, and Senate Minority Tom Kean Jr., R-Union, promised a public examination. But the hearings never materialized. The governor and the entire Legislature are up for election this year.
Alyana Alfaro Post, a spokeswoman for the governor, called Friday’s meeting “a nakedly political stunt.”
Mark Stratoti, the former administrator for Eastern Pines Rehabilitation & Nursing Home Center in Atlantic City, told the panel that he didn’t agree with the health department’s directive. He said he “balked” when the nursing home operators asked him to accept residents treated for COVID-19 discharged from the hospital.The residents ended up going to another home in the chain in Egg Harbor.
The virus had not entered the facility, which lacked the space to “cohort” residents recovering from the virus from others who were not infected, Stratoti said. “Within a month I was let go, with no warning. I think it was due to the fact I would not take COVID residents,” he said. The residents ended up going to another home in the chain in Egg Harbor, he said.
A telephone message left at Eastern Pines was not immediately returned.
“Your effort saved lives, no?” asked Sen. Michael Testa, R-Cumberland.
“I believe so,” Stratoti replied.
Richard Mollot, executive director of the Long Term Community Care Coalition, a national advocacy group, said both the state and nursing operators share the blame for any negative consequences as a result of the directive.
“They did not force the nursing homes to accept residents. They counted on the (nursing home operators) only taking residents for whom they could provide safety and appropriate care,” Mollot said.
Trusting the largely for-profit industry to do the right thing was a mistake, Mollot said. “The issue here is the New Jersey Department of Health never holds facilities accountable,” he added.
Others who testified asked lawmakers to demand the Murphy administration and long-term care facility operators reconsider visitation restrictions and the impact of the forced isolation has had on nursing home residents.
“With the realities of staff shortages and other stretched resources, staff depend on family caregivers to fill in the gap,” Ken Zaentz, president and CEO of Alzheimer’s New Jersey. It’s especially true for people with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease “who live in a world that is very confusing.”
The health department’s policy on allowing “essential caregivers” to visit once or twice a week is not enforced or even recognized by some facilities, he said.
“Alzheimer’s disease is a terminal illness,” Zaentz said. “Making families feel as though they have abandoned their loved ones in the last stage of life can’t be good policy.”
Michele Saverino said her mother who lives in a West Orange nursing facility survived COVID-19. Both she and her mother have been vaccinated. Yet it doesn’t seem the facility has made no preparations to allow visits to resume, she said.
“When will it be out turn to get into to see our loved ones?” Saverino said. “I thought that was the end goal - vaccination and we can all be together again.”
Pennacchio agreed visitation policies need to be revised and said he hoped the health department will give this issue more attention.
“You could have more people dying from the isolation than from the COVID itself,” he said.