Veterans groups rally at the Menlo Park veterans home after 62 residents died of Covid-19 on September 16, 2020.
The New Jersey attorney general has requested troves of documents from the Paramus and Menlo Park veterans homes in a far-reaching investigation of their high death tolls during the COVID-19 pandemic, and a state records review has increased total coronavirus deaths at the two state-run facilities to 190.
The addition of 47 “probable” deaths due to COVID-19 at the two New Jersey veterans homes means that nearly a third of the residents at each home died of confirmed or probable cases of COVID-19. Two nurses aides, one at each of the homes, also died.
Thirty-nine previously uncounted deaths at the Menlo Park Veterans Memorial Home make its 101 resident deaths the highest now reported at a New Jersey nursing home and the highest among state-run veterans homes nationwide. There were 300 residents at the home on March 13 when the homes closed their doors to visitors on orders from health officials.
Members of the Passaic Valley Elks Lodge, including veteran Bob Keller, second from left, honor each of the over one hundred veterans who have passed away from Covid-19 at the New Jersey Veterans Home in Paramus by placing one flag for each veteran on the front lawn of the home on May 24, 2020. (Photo: AMY NEWMAN, NORTHJERSEY.COM/ USA TODAY NETWORK)
At the Paramus Memorial Veterans Home, an additional eight probable deaths attributed to COVID-19 by the state Health Department increase its total to 89. Before the pandemic, the home had 312 residents. The number of probable deaths at each home was released this week after NorthJersey.com and the USA TODAY Network New Jersey asked for them.
“Having one-third of the residents die in our veterans homes is tragically unacceptable,” Sen. Joe Vitale, D-Middlesex, said in an interview Wednesday. “Someone has to be held accountable for this.” In August, Vitale had held a hearing on the deaths at the homes.
Many residents of nursing homes throughout the state died without being hospitalized or tested for COVID-19. Information on their death certificates allows examiners within the Communicable Disease Service at the state Health Department to determine whether the death should be attributed to the novel coronavirus.
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Across the state, 1,787 deaths have been identified as “probable” coronavirus deaths after such reviews. March and April saw many more deaths statewide than would be typical in a normal year, and the reviewers looked at medical records for symptoms related to COVID-19, as well as possible alternative causes of death.
The news confirms what many frontline staffers and families of residents have said since the pandemic’s first days, that the number of COVID-19 deaths at both homes had been undercounted.
Some have suggested the lack of testing may have been deliberate.
“If you’re not testing residents, you conveniently do not have a COVID death on your tally sheet,” said Paul da Costa, a lawyer representing dozens of families of veterans home residents who plan to sue the Menlo Park home.
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Kryn Westhoven, a spokesman for the state agency that runs the homes said “all deaths” were reported to the health department during the pandemic but he did not elaborate.
The state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs “mourns each and every veteran that passes away in our memorial homes,” Westhoven said.
Regina Discenza, whose father Charles Costantino died from COVID-19 after living at the Menlo Park home, said Thursday she’s not surprised with that there were many deaths not officially counted in the home’s pandemic tally.
“I always knew more than  Menlo Park residents had passed from the COVID because so many veterans died at JFK Medical Center like my Dad,” she said. Her mother is still a resident at Menlo Park.
Meanwhile, the attorney general’s office has asked the state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, which operates the Paramus and Menlo Park homes, to hand over reams of documents related to 50 categories. They range from the organization and management of the homes to their infection-control procedures, staffing, inspection records and COVID-19-related issues.
News of the investigation comes as two executives of a similar state-run veterans home in Massachusetts, the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, face indictment on 10 counts each connected with alleged deficiencies in care that led to the deaths of 76 residents. If convicted, the two face possible prison terms.
In a Sept. 16 memo obtained by NorthJersey.com and the USA TODAY Network New Jersey, Susan Sweeney — a lawyer and employee relations administrator for New Jersey’s Department of Military and Veterans Affairs — asked Matthew Schottlander, the CEO of the Paramus home, to provide a long checklist of documents.
The requests came as part of the attorney general’s “investigation into NJ long term care facilities and their response to the COVID-19 crisis,” she wrote. A similar request had been made of the Menlo Park veterans home, whose CEO is Elizabeth Schiff-Heedles, her email said.
The list included contact information “for all current and former registered nurses, licensed practical nurses and certified nursing assistants and nurse aides” that work at the facility as employees or for a temp agency, and organizational charts showing the nursing home’s management structure.
The timeline of COVID cases; the availability and use of COVID tests for residents; and documentation about residents hospitalized for COVID-19 and subsequently readmitted to the nursing homes was sought. Copies of communications with residents’ families, medical records, and billing records were requested from a sampling of three residents who died.
Infection control procedures — including attendance logs for staff training — and the monthly inventory and availability of personal protective equipment and the procedures for their distribution were requested. The attorney general also asked for staffing levels for every shift over a 15-month period, as well as the method used to determine staffing requirements based on residents’ needs, according to the memo.
Westhoven said Wednesday that he could not comment on the investigation due to pending litigation. More than 100 notices to sue have been sent to the agency by lawyers representing families of residents and workers at the homes.
A spokesman for the attorney general’s office, Peter Aseltine, said, “We are focusing on facilities with high numbers of COVID-related deaths and below-average track records for health inspections, staffing, and quality of care.” He declined to comment on which nursing homes are targets of the investigation.
Attorney General Gurbir Grewal was to conduct a review of all long-term facilities that have had a “disproportionate number of deaths,” Gov. Phil Murphy said in mid-April, at the pandemic’s peak, following media reports of the discovery of 17 bodies in a makeshift morgue in Andover Subacute and Rehabilitation Centers I and II in Sussex County.
Grewal appealed publicly for help in May, asking the public to tell investigators about misconduct or illegal activity they had witnessed that included cutting corners, ignoring red flags or warnings, or lying to regulators or others in a bid “to put profits over patients.”
At the time, Grewal said the investigation could lead to criminal charges, civil charges or simply recommendations based on what investigators found.
The U.S. Justice Department has also sought information from the governors of New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Michigan about any “orders which may have resulted in the deaths of thousands of elderly nursing home residents.” The DOJ is looking into whether state orders telling nursing homes to admit COVID-positive patients discharged from hospitals contributed to the deaths.
So far during the pandemic, 7,158 nursing home residents have died, accounting for nearly half of New Jersey’s 14,335 COVID deaths. More than 1 in 10 nursing home residents have died.
Following a consultants’ report recommending changes in nursing home-related state laws and policies, new laws have been enacted that raise the pay of nurses aides and mandate certain staffing ratios. The report, by the Manatt Group, did not specifically address concerns at the veterans homes.
The Paramus veterans home was inspected by a team from the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid in August, after reports that the body of a veteran who had died of COVID-19 had been misidentified when it was sent to a funeral home. The veteran’s family was erroneously told he was alive, while his roommates’ family was told their loved one had died.
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Lapses in infection control observed during the infection placed all the home’s residents and staff in “immediate jeopardy” of a life-threatening illness, the inspectors concluded. The problems were corrected before the inspectors left, their report said.
The home was fined $21,393 last month. It has appealed the penalty.
The deaths led U.S. Reps. Bill Pascrell Jr. and Josh Gottheimer, both Democrats, to call on Schottlander to resign as CEO of the Paramus home. Vitale has called on Schiff-Heedles to step down. Their superiors have so far stood by them.
“Any reasonable person would say that there was going to be deaths in our nursing homes and veterans homes,” Vitale said. “But this many deaths is inexcusable. This was a tragedy, but it was also an avoidable tragedy.”
Lindy Washburn is a senior healthcare reporter for NorthJersey.com. Scott Fallon covers the environment. To keep up-to-date with their work, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
Email: [email protected] Twitter: @lindywa
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