NJ veterans home staff, families demand answers on COVID-19 deaths

Protesters at Menlo Park Veterans Home, where 62 residents died, call for better management and accountability

Certified nursing assistant Pauline Eaves worked through the entire COVID-19 surge at the state-run Menlo Park Veterans Home where 62 residents died. She described a hellscape — a lack of basic personal protective equipment like masks, no soap, inadequate staffing and waves of patients dying.

“Horrible. Horrible. They want us to work without masks because it’s going to scare the residents,” Eaves said. “Sometimes they only have two of us on one unit. The unit consists of 60 patients. Our patient is like our family. We get so attached to them after all these years and when we see they’re just dropping like flies, that’s breaking our heart.”

At a rally calling for better management and accountability at the veterans home, workers and families voiced their heartbreak and anger.

Susan Ivanitski received a flag honoring her husband Joe, a retired Marine with Parkinson’s disease, who died at the facility during the pandemic. She’s demanding answers.

“And I knew they weren’t feeding and drinking because they had nothing. He had nobody to do it for him. They left, and this is what I’m upset about,” Ivanitski said.

“There was no goodbye. There was no farewell. It was just over,” said Stuart Zuckerman, the son of Marvin Zuckerman, a resident at the veterans home.

Gary White, commandant of the New Jersey Marine Corps League, organized the protest and wants transparency. He accused administrators there of retaliating against anyone who raised objections.

“Families, residents and staff have the right and responsibility to complain about their concerns,” he said. “Menlo Park needs meaningful inspections with follow-up. Menlo Park needs an investigation about what happened and who is responsible.”

An attorney representing some 50 families and staff in a lawsuit against the Menlo Park Veterans Home even doubts the official COVID-19 death toll of 62 at the facility.

“We know that over 300 veterans and their loved ones were residents as of the time the doors were locked on March 13. And as of today, there are only approximately 167 residents left. Do the math. It’s math that does not add up,” said attorney Paul Da Costa.

Protesters demanded the CEOs resign at both Menlo Park and also at the Paramus Veterans Home, where 81 died and a federal investigation uncovered alleged negligence and incompetence.

“It starts from the top, and there’s been a lack of accountability and direction from the leadership at the department of military veterans affairs,” said New Jersey Veterans of Foreign War Junior Vice Commander Jay Boxwell.

But the department stated ongoing support for its administrators as long-term care facilities across the state prepare for a probable second surge of COVID-19 this fall.

More than 150 long-term care facilities are now reporting active outbreaks. That means there’s been at least one positive test of a resident or staffer in the last 28 days.

Gov. Phil Murphy pointed to the package of reform bills he signed Wednesday promoting better oversight, infection control, staffing and personal protective equipment.

“There will be a full accounting, and I don’t blame folks for being upset for one second. We have complete sympathy,” Murphy said. “We will make sure that whatever has happened there in those three homes, we need to make sure we hold the mirror up to them and to ourselves.”

“That would certainly be an answer to a lot of our demands. And, again, we want to see qualified people in the positions,” said New Jersey Veterans of Foreign War Department Commander Brian Wiener.

Protesters ended the rally by assembling with photos of lost loved ones and promising to pursue justice.