HACKENSACK, NJ – In response to last year’s viral outbreak at a Wanaque pediatric facility that led to 11 deaths and 36 illnesses, lawmakers are advancing new measures to prevent similar incidents from occurring at long-term care locations.

The bill (A-5527), which was sponsored by Assembly Democrats Herb Conaway, Jr. (Burlington), Christopher Tully (Bergen, Passaic) and Lisa Swain (Bergen, Passaic), cleared the state Assembly Health and Senior Services Committee on Thursday, according to a release issued by the New Jersey Assembly Democrats.

A companion bill, which was sponsored by Sen. Joseph Vitale (D-Middlesex), was also introduced last week.

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The proposed measures would require long-term care facilities to put infection control plans in place and allow the state Department of Health to mandate the development and submission of those plans.

Following the bill’s introduction and passage by the committee, Conaway, Tully and Swain issued the following joint statement:

 “There are parents, grandparents, siblings, other family members and friends who are still dealing with the loss, emptiness and sadness of their loved one dying or becoming severely sickened as a result of this outbreak. While everyone mourns differently, they will most likely be dealing with this pain for the rest of their lives. Although this measure cannot erase their pain, it does put a system in place to ensure sure that these facilities are prepared and equipped to deal with an adenovirus 7 and other outbreaks. It specifically mandates that the plan be customized to the facility, meets national standards, and be developed in consultation with an infection control committee at the facility consisting of personnel who are trained, credentialed and experienced in infection control. These steps are crucially important to protecting the health and well-being of the current residents at these facilities. They are also just as important to the families whose loved ones perished or were sickened, because it lets them know that their loss and suffering are not in vain. Although outbreaks such as the one at the Wanaque facility are largely preventable through hand washing and other infection control practices, there is still a risk that outbreaks can occur–particularly at long-term care facilities. This legislation gives the public peace of mind that their loved ones in long-term care facilities are being cared for by people who are prepared to respond as quickly and appropriately as possible in the event of this type of health emergency.”

Vitale, chairman of the Senate’s health committee, said: “The way to deal with a tragedy of this magnitude is to take direct action so that it does not happen again. I’m glad the legislature and the Department of Health responded with such immediacy to analyze what went wrong and what changes must be made to prevent such heartbreaking outcomes in the future. Together we will ensure that the facilities taking care of our most vulnerable residents have the proper plans in place to effectively respond to outbreaks.”

The proposals reflect recommendations delivered in a new state Department of Health report that seeks to improve infection control at all long-term facilities with pediatric and adult ventilator beds.

The state also recommends:

  • Policies for patient and staff notification;
  • Availability of lab testing;
  • Protocols to assess if visitors are ill;
  • Protocols to identify/exclude sick staff from the facility;
  • Separation of sick and well patients at the outset of an outbreak to prevent spread of illness
  • More involvement from local health departments when outbreaks occur. According to the report, Gov. Murphy’s proposed budget has earmarked $2.5 million in grants for local health departments.

The report also recommends amending state regulations to require long-term care facilities with ventilator beds to implement protocols to ensure that parents and guardians of residents are immediately notified of outbreaks; hire a full-time infection control professional; and have an agreement in place to consult with an infectious disease specialist during an outbreak. In addition, all staff would have to be trained in infection control policies every six months—including protocols for identifying employees and visitors who display signs of illness.

“There is much that our healthcare system can learn to make long-term care more prepared and responsive to outbreaks when they occur. We appreciate that the chairs of the Senate and Assembly health committees have adopted several key recommendations to ensure infection control protocols are state of the art in long-term care facilities caring for New Jersey’s most vulnerable patients,” state Health Commissioner Dr. Shereef Elnahal.said in a statement. “Ensuring that all staff are regularly trained in proper handwashing protocols and other infection control procedures is the best way to prevent the spread of respiratory viruses in long-term care facilities.”

The Wanaque Center for Nursing and Rehabilitation is under state and federal investigation in the wake of last fall’s deadly adenovirus outbreak.

Last week,  the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services added nine New Jersey nursing facilities, including the Wanaque Center for Nursing and Rehabilitation to a list of  “Special Focus Facilities" across the country.

In February, the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services said it found the Wanaque facility wasn’t adequately prepared to react to the virus and fined the facility nearly $600,000 for several violations. 

Its report cited factors including poor infection controls, a lack of administrative oversight and delays in seeking treatment of sick pediatric patients.

Adenovirus type 7, which is the strain that infected patients in Wanaque, causes a mild cold or flu symptoms and usually poses little risk for healthy people but can have a severe outcome especially in people with weakened immune systems, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.