Calls for legislative investigation into state’s handling of nursing homes

Ursula Gerson says she had no idea in March that she’d never talk to her dad again.

“My dad was at CareOne in Whippany. We were never notified that he was going to be moved to another CareOne location,” said Gerson.

A short time later, they were notified that he tested positive for COVID and was taken to the hospital but quickly released.

“We got a call from CareOne on Easter Sunday that he had passed away,” she said.

Her father, Matthew Spoto, is one of more than 4,600 people to die in a long-term care facility in New Jersey. It’s an issue that’s brought criticism of the Murphy administration. A group of Republican Assembly members have submitted a request for a bipartisan special investigative committee to review the state’s handling of nursing homes during the pandemic.

“When we started hearing about what was going on, right then and there we should have figured out a robust program to do testing of the staff. We should have looked to the numbers,” said Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi.

Schepisi says she started reaching out to the Governor’s Office in March, sharing messages from mayors concerned for their nursing homes, citing staff shortages and lack of personal protective equipment.

“This isn’t Monday morning quarterbacking. These are real time things that were brought to the attention of the administration, every step along the way, asking for guidance, help,” Schepisi said.

The death toll in nursing homes began rising in late March. A recent NJ Advance Media report showed the state didn’t conduct on-site inspections until April 16, they say due to lack of personal protective equipment for inspectors.

But Murphy says the state directed nursing homes to outline infection prevention plans well before that.

“This was World War III, and we’ve gone through, I think, a very comprehensive set of steps we took from the get-go. I think Judy’s first directive was on March 6,” Gov. Phil Murphy said. “Remember, a big part of this reality are operators.”

He said there are “bad apples” among nursing home operators, many of which are for-profit entities. Dr. David Barile says better regulation, and paying staff better, could actually limit spread of illness.

“They have trouble making ends meet. They don’t all have just one job. They’ll go in and do a shift in one nursing home and then a shift in another nursing home,” Barile said.

He says that’s how much of the COVID spread happened — staff spreading it from building to building. He’s hesitant to criticize the state’s response, but says the National Guard should’ve been called in earlier than May 7 to support local health departments.

“You’ve got some towns with one or two nursing homes and you’ve got others with several,vso the local departments of health were really really struggling to care for and manage and distribute PPE,” he said.

The state has now required all residents and staff be tested by May 26.