Special to TAPintoSPF. This story was written and produced by NJ Spotlight. It is being republished under a special NJ News Commons content-sharing agreement related to COVID-19 coverage. To read more, visit njspotlight.com.

Two of New Jersey’s three veterans’ homes are seeing an increasing number of infections and deaths from the coronavirus as COVID-19 spreads through an especially vulnerable population despite the efforts of health care workers to quarantine affected residents.

The worst affected remains the Paramus home where 39 residents had died from the virus as of Sunday afternoon; 110 had been confirmed positive, and 10 were hospitalized out of a total population of 249, according to the New Jersey Department of Military and Veterans Affairs.

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Deaths and infections have been climbing steadily at the Paramus site. It reported 27 deaths and 78 positive cases as of April 14.

At the Menlo Park home, 25 residents had died as of Sunday while 52 out of a total population of 237 had been confirmed positive, and 26 were hospitalized. That compared with 17 deaths and 34 cases reported by April 14.

Another veterans’ home in Vineland where 283 veterans live reported one confirmed case but no deaths in the latest update.

All long-term care facilities have reported 10,163 cases and 1,655 deaths so far, among the total 4,070 deaths statewide, according to state Department of Health data.

The number of infections among staff at the veterans’ homes is also rising. At Paramus, the number of positive cases rose to 45 by Sunday, up from 25 four days earlier; at Menlo Park, the latest infection total for staff was 31, up from 14 over the same period. No staff deaths were reported at any of the three veterans’ homes.

Federal investigation

U.S. Rep. Josh Gottheimer, a Democrat whose 5th Congressional District includes Paramus, said three-quarters of New Jersey’s long-term care facilities, including vets’ homes, have been infected. He said in an interview with NJTV News last week that he had called for a federal investigation into conditions at the homes after deaths from COVID-19 surged at the Paramus location, and he said better pay and more medical staff might have allowed the homes to prevent the spread of the disease rather than battle to contain it.

“It’s too late to start putting on protective masks after the outbreak happens,” he said. “Some of our nursing homes acted quickly, and we will find out afterwards which ones didn’t.”

Gottheimer also called on the vets’ homes to do a better job of communicating with families about the health of residents during the pandemic. “We really need to make sure that people are communicating every single day. Families are scared because they can’t visit, and the residents are scared,” he said.

Criticism also came from the AARP, which accused the management of the homes and other long-term care facilities of failing to communicate properly with families of residents, and it called on the Murphy administration to provide more help for the homes.

The New Jersey branch of the national advocacy organization for senior citizens said remaining staff in the state’s long-term care facilities have been “overwhelmed” by the virus, and that some families “remain in the dark” about the care their loved ones are receiving.

Families need point of contact 

The AARP urged DOH to ensure that all care homes have a point of contact who will keep families updated on infections, deaths and staffing levels. It demanded details on the administration’s proposals to transfer COVID-19-infected patients from care homes to separate facilities. And it called for assurances that New Jersey’s long-term care homes would be adequately staffed.

“With the crisis continuing to worsen, we cannot afford to wait another second to shine a light on the situations facing our nursing facility residents and staff,” the AARP said in a statement.

Kryn Westhoven, a spokesman for New Jersey’s Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, said about 80 members of the New Jersey National Guard have been called in to help at the Paramus home, and about 50 at Menlo Park, because of the number of staff that have been infected. The National Guard members are typically assisting with nonmedical tasks like distributing meals to residents or walking residents around the home, he said.

The New Jersey National Guard, with about 8,400 members, has itself been hit by COVID-19, reporting 52 confirmed infections and one death by April 18.

If vets’ home residents show symptoms of the disease, they are tested and quarantined, and the family is informed, Westhoven said. If they continue to show symptoms such as a fever that the home staff cannot control, residents will be sent to a hospital, he said.

Addressing the AARP’s concerns about a staff shortage, Westhoven said DOH has set up an internet portal to encourage people who have left the health care field to return to help cope with the pandemic, and that there are discussions about nurses from the federal Veterans Administration coming to aid the New Jersey homes.

On communication, Westhoven said the vets’ homes have computers that residents can use to communicate with their families via Skype or Zoom, and some have phones that they can use to talk to their loved ones via FaceTime. Although no visiting is allowed during the pandemic, some residents have been able to see their families outside their windows, he said.

To view this article in its original format with pictures, visit https://www.njspotlight.com/2020/04/deaths-and-infections-for-residents-staff-continue-to-rise-at-two-veterans-homes.