One family’s COVID-19 nursing home nightmare

Barbara Orfini watched from afar as staffers in protective suits loaded elderly patients from St. Joseph’s Senior Home onto ambulance buses to be transferred to another senior care residence.

She was looking for her mother, one of the residents at the long-term care facility in Woodbridge that was shut down last weekend by state officials after multiple residents got sick and some died. Staff members too have tested positive with COVID-19.

A surreal caravan escorted by State Police rolled out of Woodbridge on Wednesday, relocating everybody to a CareOne center in Whippany.

Barbara’s mom, 98-year-old Catherine Onuska, was on board, but couldn’t interact directly with her family.

“The not knowing, and not being able to say, ‘Love you, Mommy,’ Barbara Orfini said of the distress she felt.

During the daily briefing on the COVID-19 crisis, Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli said there had been three deaths at St. Joseph’s Senior Home, 24 confirmed cases among its 78 residents, and five among staff members.

“We made the assumption that residents and staff of St. Joseph’s had all been exposed to COVID-19,” she said, in explaining the order to shutter the facility and transfer the residents.

Persichilli also portrayed the situation at St. Joseph’s as the worst instance of a growing problem among the state’s long-term care facilities. She said that, of 375 such centers in New Jersey, 43 have at least one resident who has tested positive for COVID-19.

She noted that the state two weeks ago ordered all long-term care centers to ban nearly all visitors, including family members, and conduct daily symptom checks on staffers, medical personnel and vendors who enter.

“We continue to see our older population and individuals with underlying conditions to be more severely impacted by COVID-19 illness,” she said. “We know our long-term care facilities are particularly at risk because of the populations that they serve.”

Onuska’s large and loving family didn’t know the coronavirus had been spreading like wildfire through the 94 patients and caregivers at St. Joseph’s, a Catholic facility run by the Little Servant Sisters. Onuska is among the 24 patients who’ve tested positive for COVID-19. They were being cared for by just three nuns, who called for help Friday night.

“So many of the staff started getting sick around the same time the residents themselves started getting sick,” said Aline Holmes, director of clinical systems projects at the Rutgers School of Nursing. “All of a sudden they realized they didn’t have any other staff except for those three nuns.”

Onuska’s whole family had been trying to contact their elderly grandmother for days at St. Joseph’s.

“My sister would go to the door, and they wouldn’t answer the door,” Barbara Orfini said. “When I found out that my mom’s roommate passed away, I totally lost it.”

Alarmed, state officials ordered an immediate evacuation. CareOne agreed to take the St. Joseph’s patients and cleared out its facility in Whippany, transforming it almost overnight into a COVID-19 ward, where all the patients would be presumed positive for the disease. Then on Wednesday, they moved the St. Joseph’s patients.

“They had six buses, they had state police escorts,” said Woodbridge Mayor John McCormac. “Our senior citizen buses transported the staff. Everybody worked so hard. “

Her family was there when the caravan arrived in Whippany and Catherine Onuska was wheeled off the bus.

“My mom and I sat in the car for six hours yesterday in CareOne’s parking lot, just so we could catch a glimpse of her,” said Juli Orfini, Catherine’s granddaughter.

“You know wave to her, shout, ‘I love you,’ which is all we really wanted was some clarification that she is OK,” she added. “We also spoke to director at CareOne who was wonderful and assured us they have extra supplies,”

CareOne said in a statement, “… we are closely monitoring the condition of all the patients and residents from St. Joseph’s and will provide them with the best quality health care possible, which starts with getting them into our facility.”

“We are reviewing the residents’ records, which all existed on paper at St. Joseph’s, to get a better sense of the scope of positive cases, and the condition of patients,” the statement continued.

The initial word on Catherine’s condition has been encouraging.

“I got an update,” Juli Orfini said. “My grandma is doing well, has no symptoms, she’s awake, she’s talking.”

The state has shut St Joseph’s down, for now. It’s not known if it will reopen.

“It’s been a nightmare,” said Juli Orfini. “I hope no family has to go through what we did.”