Gottheimer: How we ready our nursing homes for the next outbreak

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By Josh Gottheimer

I’ll never forget the first phone call we received about the state-run veteran’s home in Paramus. It was from a panicked loved-one of a facility resident — his brother-in-law, a Korean War veteran. He had just learned, second-hand, that there was a massive outbreak of COVID-19 in the facility. His family hadn’t heard a peep from the facility’s administrators. Unfortunately, he wasn’t alone.

Within hours, we started to learn the truth: 37 veterans had died, and scores of caregivers were infected or exposed, causing massive staff shortages. Like elsewhere, they didn’t have enough masks, gowns, and other protective gear.

When news first broke of the outbreak, the facility had 285 residents. Fast forward two and a half months: 195 confirmed COVID-19 cases since they began testing residents, and at least 80 veterans and residents — our nation’s heroes — have died, as well as one caregiver. These were our mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers. I worked with Gov. Phil Murphy and Congressman Bill Pascrell, and we helped get the National Guard and VA to send medics and other strike teams to the veterans home and other facilities, but the virus had already spread like wildfire.

It’s absolutely heartbreaking.

While Paramus is one of the worst stories, there are unfortunately far too many long-term care facilities in our state with similar issues, including in Andover, where they found 17 bodies at one time: high infection rates and loss of life, an insufficient supply of masks and other PPE early on, staff shortages, poor communication with residents’ loved ones, and a lack of planning or failure to act quickly. Half of the state’s 12,000 deaths have been in long-term care facilities.

With a widespread, ongoing crisis, it’s hard to know who is responsible just yet. We will need time to properly investigate, but, ultimately, the public and the families should know. I’ll tell you this: it’s not the caregivers. They’re overwhelmingly wonderful, compassionate people who work around-the-clock, often making less than their hard work deserves.

Some measures have been put in place, like increased communication with residents’ families and additional state and federal personnel and PPE. New Jersey has also released a report detailing how COVID-19 “exacerbated the longstanding, underlying systemic issues affecting nursing home care in New Jersey,” making the clear case that more needs to be done. There are steps we need to take right now, as well as strategies to prepare for future waves of infections:

1. We must ensure our facilities have the proper staffing levels, which is why I’ve been pushing for VA, National Guard, and U.S. Public Health Service strike teams to assist. In many facilities, a third to more than half of their caregivers are out because they have the virus or have been exposed.

2. Facilities need to continuously maintain a proper stockpile of PPE, so both residents and staff can be adequately protected.

3. CDC protocols must be followed, to properly cohort infected residents to stop the spread, and to prepare for when they return from hospitals.

4. We need stronger oversight and transparency from the state and those with jurisdiction, including at the federal level. For instance, when the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Service came in to inspect the Andover Subacute facility, a multitude of issues and failures finally came to light, including finding that staff didn’t have proper protective gear and sick residents never got to see a doctor before they died.

To protect these facilities’ residents and staff, I’ve introduced a bipartisan bill — the Nursing Home Pandemic Protection Act of 2020 — to require facilities report infectious diseases and potential outbreaks to the CDC, that residents and their families are kept informed of infections inside the facilities, that nursing homes have a crisis plan to manage an outbreak, and that a stockpile of PPE is maintained on-site.

I’ve also helped introduce a new bill — the SOS Act — to create rapid response teams of clinical and non-clinical staff to head into our long-term care facilities to provide immediate support.

We need these measures in place.

Attorney General Gurbir Grewal has already launched an investigation into how several of New Jersey’s nursing homes have handled the coronavirus outbreak, and the state has required testing in all of our long-term care facilities. We also need to take a closer look to uncover systemic issues in all our long-term care facilities, like what Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker has done in recent years, to ensure they are consistently providing proper care for their residents — whether there’s a pandemic or not.

We will only stop the COVID bleeding this summer — and properly prepare for a potential wave of cases this fall — if we take action right now. We owe it to our seniors and their families. Anything else is unacceptable.

U.S. Rep. Josh Gottheimer represents New Jersey’s 5th Congressional District, which includes parts of Bergen, Passaic, Sussex and Warren counties. He’s also co-chair of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus.

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