As the COVID-19 inferno was roaring through New Jersey’s 575 nursing homes a month ago, killing thousands of the state’s most vulnerable residents and some of their caretakers, the Murphy administration hired nationally experienced team of health experts to review the state’s long-term care facilities.

On Wednesday, Gov. Murphy said the review produced recommendations by Manatt Health to address systematic challenges, mitigate the ongoing impact of the virus and reduce impacts of future outbreaks.

A group of Republican state senators, however, said that the "superficial report […] does not absolve [the Murphy] administration for its clear failures that led to the massive loss of life in New Jersey’s long-term care facilities due to COVID-19.”

The official COVID-19 death toll in the Garden State is 11,880, and almost half of them — 5,232 — have been in long-term care facilities.

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The report's recommendations:

  • Strengthen emergency response capacity by strengthening the ability to plan, coordinate and execute effective responses to emergency situations and potential surges.
  • Consolidate and strengthen response through a central long-term care emergency operations center that coordinates all activity and communications for long-term care facilities and obtains real-time input about staffing, supplies and operational issues.
  • Implement a reopening and forward-looking testing plan.
  • Stabilize facilities and bolster workforce by increasing the responsibilities of and support for New Jersey’s nursing homes and their workers in the short and long-term.
  • Ensure staff have access to paid sick leave and pay increases, implement minimum staffing ratios for direct care, strengthen training and career development opportunities, and institute COVID-19 relief payments for facilities.
  • Ensure payments to nursing homes, including any increases, are used for patient care.
  • Increase transparency and accountability through data and reporting.
  • Institute new procedures to regulate and monitor facility ownership, with a focus on increasing transparency.
  • Improve oversight and increase penalties for nursing homes and centralize long-term care data collection and processing.
  • Improve safety and quality infrastructure by requiring facilities to maintain infection control prevention and by supporting the state’s current surveillance efforts.
  • Create a Governor’s Task Force on transforming New Jersey’s long-term care delivery system.
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Murphy said the report “is the foundation for building a high functioning and resilient long-term care system, which puts an emphasis on quality of care, patient safety, robust data infrastructure and strong supports.”

He said “it restores transparency and accountability where there currently is too little, and recommends providing resources to help our facilities meet their obligations.”

Murphy said the report could not come at a more vital time.

“With recommendations we can put in place now to enhance our current mitigation efforts and others that will help us ensure a stronger, more robust and more centralized response when the next pandemic comes.”

Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli said some of the recommendations are already being implemented such as using coronavirus relief funds to improve inspections and oversight.

“The Murphy Administration paid a consulting firm $500,000 to rush a report that attempts to shift blame for thousands of nursing home deaths to anyone but the governor,” said state Sen. Steve Oroho, R-Sussex.

“The report glosses over the fact that the administration forced our LTC facilities to admit COVID-19 patients, which led to thousands of deaths. With that glaring deficiency, the entire report is suspect.”

Media reports have said that Persichilli objected to the initial contract with the firm because of its cost.

The senators said the administration’s attempts to stifle dissenting opinions, shift blame, and perhaps even cover-up its failures serves to heighten the need for a legislative investigation with subpoena authority.

“We have documented evidence of the orders from the Department of Health that delivered a wildfire of infection into the vulnerable population of our nursing homes, reports of a key figure being fired and perhaps scapegoated, and damning new claims from whistleblowers within the administration,” said state Sen. Kristin Corrado, R-Passaoc. “There is nothing in the report that addresses any of those concerns or lessens my belief that we need a thorough legislative review with the power to subpoena witnesses. Frankly, the Manatt report isn’t worth its $5,000-per-page price tag.”

Earlier this week an anonymous letter sent to top New Jersey lawmakers, reportedly from Health Department employees, said mistakes and confusion by the Department led to preventable deaths, and it called the state’s response to the pandemic “an unmitigated failure.”

It also said Manatt Health was hired because of a lack of leadership within the Health Department.

Murphy has declined to comment on the contents of the letter

Jonathan Dolan, CEO of the Health Care Association of New Jersey, supports the recommendations made in the report. He called it a “comprehensive review of the structural and operational issues that affected the response by nursing homes to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“We urge our staffs, our residents, their families, the public and government officials to read all of the conclusions and recommendations.”

The report is available here.

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