Alarmed by the overcrowding of a makeshift morgue at a long-term care facility in Andover Township, a state lawmaker who also earns a living as a funeral director wants to require that all similar facilities and nursing homes have space and refrigeration set aside for the proper storage of deceased individuals.

"While I certainly hope that the outbreak of COVID-19 is a once-in-a-lifetime circumstance, we must do everything in our power to ensure that we are prepared for any future public health disaster," said Assemblyman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, D-Bergen. "I believe that this legislation will be an important first step in protecting the dignity of our residents, especially our most vulnerable in nursing and other long-term care facilities."

Huttle noted daily numbers continue to show the growing prevalence of COVID-19 in these facilities. During a media briefing Wednesday afternoon, Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli said there are 438 long-term care facilities reporting at least one case of COVID-19, totaling 11,608 cases. More than 2,000 of New Jersey's 5,063 deaths related to COVID-19 have been reported from these facilities.

"In the midst of this crisis, families have enough to worry about as concerns mount of their loved ones potentially contracting this highly contagious virus," Huttle said. "As a funeral director, I believe that the manner in which we care for our loved ones who have passed is an expression of our empathy and deference to the living and the dead."

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The state's largest long-term care facility was recently fined and told to bring on additional staff, after 17 bodies were found crowded into a makeshift morgue meant for fewer than a half dozen. Gov. Phil Murphy has called for an investigation by the Attorney General's Office into facilities with a high number of deaths.

"The situation in Andover and other facilities never should have happened, but I also believe that without a proper response it can happen again," Huttle added.

The lack of morgue space has long been an issue among funeral directors, according to Huttle.

"When a person does die in a nursing home, they're left in their rooms until the funeral director comes to pick up the remains," she said. "But when you have this number of decedents, it's overwhelming and it's a difficult task."

The Health Care Association of New Jersey, the trade association that represents long-term care facilities in the state, did not respond to a request for comment on the pending legislation.

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