Families want change after veterans home report

Arnold Haber’s family stood in front of the Paramus Veterans Home where the 91-year-old Korean War vet died of COVID-19 in mid-April. So far, 81 residents have died there, killed not just by the deadly virus, but also by alleged negligence and incompetence, as outlined in a scathing federal report.

“I don’t use this term lightly: this was a holocaust, for a few days, a few weeks, in here,” said Arnold’s son, Mitchell Haber. “It was being spread quickly between people who were positive and people who were negative in the same rooms.”

The day Haber died, federal inspectors surveyed the Paramus facility, and in a report noted with alarm two so-called immediate jeopardies. First, that staff misidentified one patient and told his family he was still alive when he’d actually died hours earlier. And, that staff lacked appropriate infection control, letting COVID-positive patients mingle with negative ones in the dementia unit. Positive patients also roomed alongside those who were awaiting test results. That’s what happened to Arnold Haber, his family says.

“I mean, the virus was there already, and, to be honest, even if they did move him out I don’t think he would have survived,” Mitchell said.

Inspectors also cited that staff lacked protective gear and sufficient training, but ultimately they issued no permanent citations or penalties.

“There will be a full accounting of all of this, and we have committed to that and that’s what will happen,” Gov. Phil Murphy said at Monday’s coronavirus press briefing.

Attorney Paul da Costa isn’t surprised. He represents 50 families of both residents and staff who are planning to file lawsuits against New Jersey veterans home in Paramus and Menlo Park. He says staff was ordered not to wear masks.

“They didn’t want to scare the residents. And what my clients will tell you is that all of their loved ones were terrified in their last weeks and days of life because of the immense chaos that erupted at these facilities,” he said.

Da Costa represented patients’ families after the 2018 Wanaque Center adenovirus outbreak that killed 11 kids, and says subsequent reforms mandated every nursing home prepare an emergency plan to properly isolate sick patients.

What happened in Paramus?

A spokesperson wouldn’t comment because of pending lawsuits, but administrators have previously said they followed CDC guidelines that were current at the time and pleaded for more staff and personal protective equipment. They did get 90 more nurses and medics in mid-April to offset staff shortages.

Advocates want veterans to get prioritized.

“This hits home just because of the lack of attention and the lack of sensitivity to the veteran population, particularly here in northern New Jersey,” said U.S. Army veteran Joseph Bosotina.

Reps. Bill Pascrell and Josh Gottheimer, citing the federal report, have demanded that Paramus CEO Matthew Schottlander resign.

“It’s heartbreaking, to say the least. It’s outrageous what happened there, and part of it is you have to hold somebody accountable, who failed, but also to make sure that we’re prepared if, God forbid, we have another outbreak in the fall,” Gottheimer said.

The governor had no comment on that.

“I’ve got no insights. I had not seen the congressman’s request,” Murphy said.

On Monday, Murphy announced $155 million to help long-term care facilities, including Jersey’s three veterans homes, reopen with upgraded safety measures.

On Thursday, New Jersey lawmakers will conduct hearings around a package of sweeping reforms designed to improve state oversight and establish sanctions for operational failures; provide enough personal protective equipment for staff during health emergencies; establish infection control standards; and improve wages and sick leave for staff.

Meanwhile, the director of New Jersey’s Veteran Health Services reassured families.

“I can assure you that we are better prepared, we are better stocked, and we are ready to make sure our most precious natural resource, our veterans, is number one in our priorities,” Sean Van Lew said in a recorded video on June 28.

Veteran Arnold Haber, a father of three and husband of 65 years, is finally at rest. But his family can’t find peace, yet.

“The veterans home, I want them to take care of the people better than they did my husband. I really do. They just didn’t do their job,” said Arnold’s widow, Rena Haber.

They want accountability.