As the COVID-19 pandemic suddenly flared out of control in early March, New Jersey and the rest of the nation was unprepared and quickly overwhelmed.

Nowhere was this more evident than in the state’s long-term care facilities, which were home to more than 40% of New Jersey’s 10,843 coronavirus victims.

The Murphy administration has been criticized by some for not recognizing the scope of the problem fast enough, failing to provide ample personal protective equipment for nursing home residents and staff, or testing them quickly enough.

The Assembly Republican caucus now is calling for a bipartisan special investigative committee to review how the state handled the crisis in nursing homes and assisted-living facilities.

During Thursday’s COVID-19 update, state Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli reviewed a series of steps that were taken starting in mid March to protect long-term care facility residents, including restricting visitors, issuing directives on staff changes and protocols for meals, requiring reports on PPE supplies, separating positive COVID-19 patients from others and offering help to struggling nursing homes.

On March 6, two days after the state's first reported COVID-19 case, state health officials notified long-term care facilities about the importance of infection control.

The state restricted visitation at the facilities on March 14, a day before the first known outbreak at any facility.

On March 22, the state provided waivers to facilities that needed to quickly hire more staff. Three days later, New Jersey's health commissioner spoke to her counterparts in Washington state to learn about their nursing home experiences.

On March 30, the state Health Department restricted public access to the facilities and required screening of residents and employees and the creation of separate wings and floors for residents returning from hospitals where they had been treated for COVID-19. The state also called for masking of all residents and staff, even before the CDC recommended that.

Also on that day, the state arranged with Care One, a nursing home operator, to take up 707 nursing home residents that had been hospitalized in order to divert patients from overstressed long-term care facilities.

On March 31, the health commissioner held a conference call with 200 long-term care facilities and outlined a requirement that could only accept returning patients if the facility could adhere to infection-prevention requirements.

Persichilli said Thursday that from March 26 and May 19, long-term care facilities received 24 million pieces of personal protective equipment from the state, the national stockpile and FEMA.

She said when the COVID-19 crisis began, the nation was dealing with something we had never dealt with before.

When Gov. Phil Murphy was asked about reports that some nursing homes continue to struggle to get enough PPE, he acknowledged the problem.

“We do not still have enough PPE as we sit here today in the state of New Jersey. As a nation we started in a deficit and we’ve had to cobble this together with Band-Aids, paper clips.”

He pointed out when the COVID-19 crisis began, the virus was being spread without anybody realizing it.

“These heroic workers going in and out of these facilities in those early days, other folks who were going in and out of these facilities were unwittingly kindling the fire that has raged,” Murphy said.

Persichilli said that while “some people say, well, we saw it coming, we saw this, we saw that — that’s what we have to look at because there will be another one, and I want to make sure that the record is clear and we learn from it.

“The department has been providing guidance and support to long-term care facilities throughout this outbreak and we stand ready to support them through this epidemic,” she said.

Murphy said many parts of the world have also had nursing home tragedies similar or worse than New Jersey.

“Over 80% of the deaths in Canada are from long-term care facilities. It isn’t just us. We are doing everything we can to figure out what we can do better," he said.

The state has hired an independent professional team to review the nursing home situation.

“They’re not just going to hold up a roadmap for what it needs to look like going forward; they’re going to hold up a mirror to all of us — including, it must be said, an extraordinarily uneven performance by operators," Murphy said.

“Are there good apples? You bet you there are. But there are others that just did not get the job done.”

You can contact reporter David Matthau at David.Matthau@townsquaremedia.com