Death Tolls at NJ Nursing Homes Finally Released

EDISON, NJ—Local nursing homes, including a state-run “veterans home,” are among Central New Jersey’s most deeply affected by outbreaks of COVID-19, according to newly-released data on over 400 facilities.

The Menlo Park Veterans Home in Edison was the site of 86 cases of the disease associated with 25 deaths there, the most of any home in the area.

Earlier in April, at least 35 National Guard “combat medics” were reportedly deployed to assist the staff at the facility, and another 40 were sent to Paramus where a similar state-run facility was in even worse shape.

Middlesex County nursing homes have seen some of Central Jersey’s worst outbreaks, with 19 deaths so far in Monroe’s “Cranbury Center” and 17 deaths in South Plainfield’s “Aristacare at Cedar Oaks,” according to data.

The state’s online portal for COVID-19 information shows there were 38 “long-term care” (LTC) facilities in Middlesex County with outbreaks, totaling 948 cases of the virus and 169 deaths.

Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli and Governor Philip D. Murphy

Under pressure for increased transparency, the administration of Governor Phil Murphy released the numbers for LTC facilities with outbreaks after weeks of concealing their names from the public.

Instead, the Governor and his Health Commissioner relied upon statewide totals and only recently began providing county-by-county breakdowns of the deaths and cases at LTC facilities.

But those were not enough for the families who were concerned about the situation in specific nursing homes, and Murphy’s team relented, finally releasing a full data set on the 428 facilities with at least one COVID case.

It does come with disclaimers, explaining death stats “include COVID-positive deaths, deaths in persons with pending test results, and respiratory illness deaths for which COVID testing was not performed.”

Case numbers are “self-reported by facilities at a point in time and may not reflect real-time data.”

Nevertheless, it’s the first statewide glimpse at key data about how the virus spreads and potentially which facilities are handling the crisis the best.

The long-term care facilities in Middlesex County with the most deaths from COVID-19

The state finally began releasing this rudimentary data on April 20, some six weeks after the state’s first confirmed coronavirus case, and more than a month after much of the state was locked down by Murphy’s own orders.

It came following revelations about Andover Subacute, a pair of privately-run LTC’s in Sussex County that together are considered the largest in New Jersey. Police responding to a tip reportedly discovered seventeen bodies piling up in an on-site morgue intended to hold just four corpses.

Andover Subacute is now under investigation by the NJ Attorney General’s Office. They have experienced a combined 134 COVID cases and 39 related deaths, according to the data.

Prior to the release of the LTC data, members of the press were starting to voice their displeasure with Murphy’s administration on transparency.

“FLORIDA will now release names of nursing homes with COVID-positive patients and staff. New Jersey still won’t do this.. even as nursing home deaths make up 40% of state death toll,” tweeted WNYC reporter Karen Yi on April 18.

The transparency boost also came after questions from New Brunswick Today about the administration’s rejection of our public records request for data about the state’s healthcare system capacity.

Governor Phil Murphy at a Saturday briefing

“I wish you better luck next time, what’s your next question?” Murphy told the author of this article after we pointed out that he had previously said there was “no reason not to” release the requested data.

Two days later, he was back in the same room in front of some of the same reporters, this time offering some data, but not the full extent of what was requested.

“We are now going to see to it that every facility is reported openly as we had promised,” Murphy said at the start of the briefing on April 20.

Data and information have been hard to come by amid the coronavirus chaos. The county government only releases cases by town, no information on deaths, and very little specifics on LTC’s.

The New Brunswick city government has not responded to multiple inquiries from New Brunswick Today about the pandemic, so it’s still not clear how many New Brunswickers died so far.

At least nine lives were lost involving two nursing homes in New Brunswick. The newly-released statistics do not appear to differentiate between staff and residents.

Some facilities have comparatively few deaths despite many dozens of cases, while others have seen higher death tolls from less cases, discrepancies likely due to the severe lack of testing availability here.

Easton Avenue’s Parker Memorial Home has lost six lives to the virus, but reports just 17 cases, while the total toll at Rose Mountain Care Center is three from 31 total cases.

Menlo Park Veterans Home

And while there have been 113 confirmed cases so far at JFK Hartwyck at Edison Estates, the most of any LTC in Central Jersey, their eleven deaths are actually far fewer there than the 25 in the nearby Menlo Park facility.

There’s slightly more data available about Menlo Park, where 64% of the cases are residents and the remaining 36% are staff. Because the state runs Menlo Park and two other veterans facilities, more detailed numbers had previously been made available about only those homes.

Before the state’s release of the data, it was nearly impossible to get straight answers from the operators of many LTC’s, even government agencies like the Middlesex County Improvement Authority (MCIA).

The new numbers finally confirm that outbreaks have affected the MCIA’s two Roosevelt Care Centers. At their April 8 telephone board meeting, offficials had declined to say on the record if they had any confirmed cases.

When asked whether either of the county’s nursing homes had outbreaks of the virus, the MCIA’s attorney was called upon to avoid answering directly.

“We need to report them to the county and to the state health department, so we really defer to them for those kind of numbers,” said Louis Rainone, who represents the MCIA through the law firm of State Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin.

“Well, it was really a yes or no question: Are there any cases in the two facilities? I guess it sounds like there are,” said this reporter.

“I don’t think it’s really for us in this context to comment on that,” responded Rainone.

As it turns out, the Roosevelt Care Center in Edison has experienced three deaths from the disease and reported 15 cases, while the one in Old Bridge lost four lives and reported 16 cases.

The hardest-hit LTC in the state was the Paramus Veterans Memorial Home with 155 confirmed cases and 39 deaths thus far.

The full dataset released on April 20 is available below.

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Charlie is the founder and editor of New Brunswick Today, and the winner of the Awbrey Award for Community-Oriented Local Journalism. He is a proud Rutgers University journalism graduate and a community organizer, and was an independent candidate for Mayor of New Brunswick in 2018.

He can be reached at (732) 993-9697 or [email protected]