Two Republican senators from North Jersey are calling for more information related to a $52.9 million settlement with the families of 119 veterans who died at state-run long-term care (LTC) facilities in Paramus and Menlo Park during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In a Jan. 4 press release, State Senate Minority Leader Steve Oroho (R-24) and State Sen. Joe Pennacchio (R-26) announced they filed requests for government records regarding the out-of-court resolution under Open Public Records Act (OPRA) with the Governor’s Office, Department of Health, Department of Military and Veterans Affair and Department of Law & Public Safety.
“The documents we are seeking will help us to understand what went wrong at the start of the coronavirus pandemic so we can develop effective policies that better protect our seniors and veterans,” Oroho said in a statement. “This isn’t about playing ‘gotcha’ with the administration, we’re trying to save lives.”
According to published reports, under the terms of the agreement reached in December, each of the families will receive an average of $450,000 to be determined in future arbitration proceedings. The state will pay 60% of the settlement, or $31.7 million within 90 days of the receipt of all “closing papers” from plaintiffs in the case.
The negligence claims included allegations that the state-run facilities in Paramus and Menlo Park directed staff not to wear masks and gloves because it “might scare residents.”
The plaintiffs alleged the homes did not enact proper infection control procedures until several months into the pandemic, including allowing employees who tested positive for COVID-19 to return to work. Gov. Phil Murphy’s office has declined to formally comment on the settlement.
‘We’ve Been Stonewalled’
Pennacchio hopes the OPRA requests will yield documents that provide “a greater understanding of the impact of Murphy administration policies, which forced the admission and prevented the testing of patients by nursing homes and state-run veterans homes.”
Additionally, he believes the records may be able to answer questions about the role of the New Jersey Department of Health and the State Epidemiologist in developing those policies as well as provide a clear timeline of discussions.
“At every turn, we’ve been stonewalled by the Murphy administration and denied access to public records that could provide critical insight to lawmakers,” Pennacchio said. “Their repeated denials will not deter us from continuing to seek important pandemic records that can inform our efforts to improve the health, safety, and economic well-being of New Jerseyans.”
Murphy’s administration came under fire after a March 31, 2020, directive barring nursing and veterans homes from turning away patients who tested positive for coronavirus, an order that was later rescinded.
Between the state’s three military veterans LTC facilities in Menlo Park, Paramus and Vineland, more than 200 resident deaths were recorded, one of the highest COVID-related death tolls in the country. As a result, the state sent in emergency assistance from the Veterans Administration and the National Guard to help care for residents of the homes.
The number of deaths prompted the U.S. Department of Justice to launch a civil rights probe in October 2020, saying that there was “cause for concern that the quality of medical care at these nursing homes has been deficient.”
The ongoing investigation is focusing on whether the number of deaths in veterans homes had been understated and whether the state should have not ordered nursing homes to accept residents who had been treated for coronavirus in a hospital. Separately, the state attorney general is taking a broader look at how New Jersey’s long-term care facilities responded to the public health emergency.
Case For Select Committee
A prior OPRA request by State Senate Republicans was turned down due to the continuing investigations, according to Oroho and Pennachio.
Pennacchio said, “Every OPRA request the Murphy administration denies only strengthens our case for convening a select committee with subpoena power to get the answers that lawmakers, victims, and families deserve.”
Following news of the settlement last month, the Morris County lawmaker again pushed for a bipartisan select committee with subpoena power to review the Murphy administration’s pandemic response efforts.
Pennachio has been stymied as State Senate Democrats have blocked his efforts to bring the resolution (SR-68) up for a vote by the New Jersey Senate on five separate occasions over 19 months—including as recently as Dec. 20, 2021.
As of Jan. 12, the cumulative number of confirmed coronavirus cases in New Jersey was 1,653,738 with 19,454 total new PCR cases. There were 4,348 probable cases, bringing the cumulative total of antigen tests to 261,679. The total number of individual cases for the state is 1,915,417.
As for those that have passed, the state reported 103 confirmed deaths, bringing that total to 26,868. The state listed probable deaths at 2,869, bringing the overall total to 29,737. State officials noted 79 deaths occurred in the last 24 hours of reporting that have not yet been lab confirmed.
For North Jersey counties on Jan. 12, Bergen had a total of 2,006 new confirmed cases and 476 new probable cases, Essex 1,814 new cases and 217 new probable case, Hudson 1,609 new cases and 324 new probable cases, Morris 917 new confirmed cases and 203 new probable cases, Passaic 1,116 new cases and 253 new probable cases, Sussex 314 new cases and 68 new probable cases, and Warren 264 new cases and 37 new probable cases.
Of the total confirmed deaths in North Jersey, Essex County has the most with 2,964, followed by Bergen at 2,829, Hudson with 2,268, Passaic at 1,921, Morris at 1,099, Sussex at 313, and Warren County at 267.
In regards to probable deaths reported Jan. 10, Bergen has 314, Essex has 310, Morris has 274, Hudson has 223, Passaic has 207, Sussex has 74 and Warren has 27.
Of the 6,145,961 fully vaccinated individuals studied as of Dec. 27, 2021, 128,172 New Jersey residents have tested positive for COVID who were fully vaccinated (2.1%). Of those 1,687 have been hospitalized and 448 COVID-related deaths—less than 1% in each category.
In the week of Dec. 20-26, 2021, breakthroughs accounted for 31.0% of all new cases (31,334 of 101,000), 0.2% of new hospilizations (4 of 2,640), and five of the 146 deaths.
As for the rate of transmission reported Jan. 12, it declined to 1.35 from 1.55 the day before. The daily rate of infections from those tested Jan. 7 was 31.0%; by region, the rate was 29.4% in the North, 32.7% in the Central region and 32.8% in the South.
The state’s dashboard had a count of 6,089 patients hospitalized as all 71 hospitals in the Garden State filed reports Jan. 12. By region, there were 2,711 in the North, 1,936 in the Central and 1,442 in the South. Of those hospitalized, 919 are in intensive care units—surpassing 900 for the first time since May 20, 2020—and 550 on ventilators. A total of 829 patients were discharged in the last 24 hour reporting period.
Officials have continually cited transmission rate, hospitalizations, intensive care units, ventilators and positivity rate as health data they rely on to track how the coronavirus is being contained in New Jersey, guiding them in determining when restrictions have to be tightened or lifted.
Long-term Care Facilities
Health officials noted 535 long-term care facilities are currently reporting at least one case of COVID-19, accounting for a total of 18,430 of the cases, broken down between 7,709 residents and 10,721 staff.
Cumulatively, 2,325 long-term care facilities have reported an outbreak infecting 41,524 residents and 33,766 staff, for a total of 75,290.
The state’s official death total will now be reported as those that are lab confirmed, sits at 8,830 on Jan. 11. The facilities are reporting to the state 8,174 residents deaths and 151 staff deaths.
According to the state dashboard with just 50% of all New Jersey schools reporting, new student cases totaled 20,091 and new staff cases 8,308 in the last week as of Jan. 2. Cumulatively, 360,698 cases have been reported— 71,029 students and 21,014 staffers.
The vaccination rate for teachers in the Garden State is 84.7% overall. In North Jersey counties, Bergen was tops at 90.8%, followed by Warren at 88.9%, Morris at 87.9%, Sussex at 86.7%, Passaic at 85.9%, Essex at 82.0%, and Hudson at 77.6%, tied for the lowest county in the state.
In regards to outbreaks related to in-school transmissions as of Jan. 11, the state has tracked 388 school outbreaks and 2,255 cases linked to those outbreaks since the 2021/2022 school year starting Aug. 7, up four outbreaks and 28 cases from the week previous.
Outbreaks are defined as three or more laboratory confirmed COVID-19 cases among students or staff with onsets within a 14 day period, linked within the school setting, do not share a household, and were not identified as close contacts of each other in another setting during standard case investigation or contact tracing.
For North Jersey in the new report, Bergen County has 48 confirmed outbreaks with 264 cases, Morris County has 31 confirmed outbreaks with 190 cases, Passaic County has 19 confirmed outbreaks with 170 cases, Sussex has 29 confirmed outbreaks with 156 cases, Essex County has 22 confirmed outbreaks with 119 cases, Hudson County has 18 confirmed outbreaks with 89 cases and Warren County has two confirmed outbreaks with 12 cases.
The number of COVID-19 vaccines administered in New Jersey totaled 13,168,880 in-state, plus an additional 520,950 administered out-of-state for a grand total of 13,689,830 as of Jan. 11.
Of those who have received the vaccine, 6,270,899 received their second dose or the one jab Johnson & Johnson dose in state and another 211,799 out of state, bringing those fully vaccinated to 6,482,698 A total of 75% of those eligible are fully vaccinated in New Jersey and 88% have received at least one dose.
State officials reported boosters and third shots of 1,298,637 for Pfizer and 1,095,816 for Moderna. A total of 51,696 New Jerseyans have received their Johnson & Johnson booster shot. Overall, 2,446,149 have received a booster or third shot. Overall, 46% of those eligible have received their booster.
In North Jersey, Bergen County has 689,098 residents fully vaccinated, Essex 554,390, Hudson 495,713, Morris 371,616, Passaic 336,993, Sussex 89,297, and Warren 58,044.