A bill moving through Trenton aims to protect senior citizens in long-term care facilities from ailments such as COVID-19, and increase transparency for residents and their families.

New Jersey Congressmen Josh Gottheimer (D-5) and Chris Smith (R-4) are co-sponsors of Nursing Home Pandemic Protection Act of 2020, which would codify into federal law new requirements that nursing homes report communicable diseases, infections and potential outbreaks to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The bill also requires that residents and their families be kept informed of such outbreaks inside facilities.

Facilities would be required to have both a crisis plan in place and a stockpile of personal protection equipment like masks and gloves on hand.

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Gottheimer said what he has seen in the last two months at some of these long-term care facilities and nursing homes has been heartbreaking. He said a newly released federal report found many of these New Jersey facilities were not prepared for a crisis like COVID-19, didn't respond quickly, didn't communicate with families and didn't have protective gear in place. Notably, federal officials say they found conditions that put patients at risk at a Sussex County nursing home where 17 dead bodies were removed last month.

"I think we can't get caught flat-footed like this again," Gottheimer said.

Gotttheimer said many family members of patients in long-term care facilities didn't even know there were outbreaks until it was too late.

In Paramus, at a state-run veterans home, 37 people died of COVID-19 before family members were notified. Gotttheimer said he found out through press accounts, rather than through the facility itself.

At the Andover Subacute and Rehab Center, where the 17 bodies were found,  Gottheimer said he got a call on a Saturday night about a month ago from the facility requesting extra body bags. He said people died in such a short amount of time and the facility did not have a plan in place. He said there was a staffing shortage at the Andover facility, but it hadn't reached out for help, and the staff didn't have protective gear.

"We can't first deal with these issues after people die, after people are sick, after family members are heartbroken. These are our loved ones. We owe them much more, much better and that's what our federal legislation will do nationwide," said Gottheimer.

Gottheimer said his legislation also stresses that people who own long-term care facilities have to be available. Gottheimer said the person who is in charge has to be either on the ground or nearby, or someone else must be empowered to make decisions on a moment's notice.

He said he's pushing to make sure there are tougher investigations into these facilities, and penalties or fines for those responsible for problems.

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