TRENTON – State lawmakers at a pair of budget hearings this week appeared universally pleased with the direction of the Department of Military and Veterans’ Affairs, where leadership was changed last October after 156 residents of state veterans’ homes died from COVID-19 infections.

The acting adjutant general is Col. Lisa Hou, a field surgeon who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and formerly was the DMVA’s assistant commissioner for operations.

“As a physician and a veteran, protecting the health and well-being of our veterans, our veteran spouses and Gold Star families who live in our homes, it’s my number one priority,” Hou said.

Hou said Gov. Phil Murphy said her foremost goal should be changing the operations of the state’s veterans’ homes, following the deaths of 81 residents at the Paramus facility, 64 at Menlo Park and 11 at Vineland. That amounts to around one of every six residents of those homes.

“Our numbers are regrettable from the past, but the high positivity rate now we’ve driven down to near zero,” Hou said. “So, it’s not over. We’ll keep this fight alive to protect our residents and staff while maintaining the highest quality of care.”

Hou said no residents are currently infected in the veterans’ homes, where vaccination efforts began in early January. Five staff members currently have COVID-19, she said Monday – two at Menlo Park and three at Vineland.

“We just need reassurances that we’ve learned from our mistakes and we’re going to ensure these things are properly staffed, properly protected,” said Sen. Paul Sarlo, D-Bergen.

Hou said that in the last six months there have been leadership changes, including administrators at Paramus and Menlo Park; a working group of all three facilities that meets at least biweekly; federal, state and outside assessments of operations; regular leadership visits to homes to talk with staff and residents; incident command teams to respond to any emergency; and more.

The proposed state budget includes funding to being adding 87 more direct-care staffers, so staff levels can keep pace with the population as new residents again start being added.

Hou said the department also recently received a grant from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs “to build three buildings, one for each facility, I believe it’s about 2,500 square feet each, for additional cohorting should we need it, if we need overflow space.”

Republicans asked for reports from any investigations to be shared with the Legislature.

“I’m really thrilled with where we are now. It’s great to hear there’s no positive cases at all. That’s fantastic,” said Sen. Declan O’Scanlon, R-Monmouth. “But I don’t want to ignore what happened. I think we owe it to the folks that we lost to figure out what happened because these outbreaks were dramatic.”

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Hou said she wasn’t in charge at the time but noted the deaths were higher at the facilities in Bergen and Middlesex counties, where the pandemic got an early start, than in South Jersey, where it began more slowly and was less of a surprise.

“I think during the height of the pandemic, much of that was due to the community outbreak,” Hou said. “Our staff comes from the community.”

Hou said the question is currently the subject of a state investigation.

“There are ongoing investigations,” Hou said. “So, my focus has been where we are now and how we can move forward and make sure we don’t get there again.”

Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com.

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