The state Senate plans to hold hearings examining the state’s handling of coronavirus outbreaks in long-term care facilities and prisons, with the Senate president calling the situation in nursing homes “a disaster” made worse by a directive barring them from excluding patients with COVID-19.

The state Health Department reports that there have been 5,368 coronavirus deaths associated with residents of long-term care facilities in New Jersey, as of May 18. That includes 4,295 lab-confirmed deaths, accounting for 40.5% of the 10,586 confirmed COVID-19 deaths in the state.

“This is a disaster, what’s happened to our nursing homes. And I think the executive order that was signed on the 31st needs to be reversed immediately because bringing people that are sick back into nursing homes just spreading this thing,” said Senate President Steve Sweeney, D-Gloucester.

On March 31, Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli issued a directive to long-term facilities that required them to accept residents discharged from hospitals that the hospital physician deemed to be medically stable. It said nursing homes couldn’t deny a person admission or readmission solely based on a confirmed diagnosis of COVID-19 and couldn’t test them for the virus.

The directive was similar to one New York had issued five days earlier.

“Gov. Cuomo announced the other day that it was a mistake, and I think Gov. Murphy has to recognize, listen, we make mistakes and this is not a perfect world,” Sweeney said. “But we’re trusting these nursing homes to do everything that’s right and not every nursing home operator’s a good actor.”

Sweeney isn’t the first lawmaker to raise the concerns, which Persichilli addressed again Monday.

“We did advise long-term care facilities to readmit their residents – remember, that’s their residents – if they had appropriate PPE and appropriate staffing and the ability to cohort, that is to separate COVID-19 patients from non-COVID-19 patients,” Persichilli said. “If the long-term care facility was not able to do that, they should not have readmitted.”

Sweeney suggested that the state should have directed patients with COVID-19 to the three field hospitals that were built by the Army Corps of Engineers in Secaucus, Edison and Atlantic City. But those didn’t open until April 6, 11 and 21, respectively, and have been used to treat patients without COVID-19. To date they have treated 450 patients, including 39 there on Sunday night.

Sweeney credited the Murphy administration with bringing down the curve of infections but said more must be done at nursing homes, which since mid-April have been under an order curtailing admissions but only lat some overwhelmed facilities.

“I really think that we need to stop bringing back corona patients into our nursing homes and do a better job of protocol and testing our medical staff because people in the nursing homes didn’t go out. This disease came in to them. Same as the jails, it came in to them,” Sweeney said. “So obviously our protocols weren’t good enough, so we’ve got to get better.”

“We put them back in a building where people had weak immune systems, so it’s not hard to understand why the numbers went up so high,” he said. “… There were all tell-tell signs that you kept putting people back in the nursing homes as more people were getting sick and dying in the nursing homes. So at some point you have to say, ‘Hey, wait a minute, let’s reverse policy here.’”

Gov. Phil Murphy complimented Persichilli again Monday and shrugged off a section of a published report by USA Today Atlantic Group that quotes Persichilli, in an undated recording, saying she never has Murphy’s attention and hasn’t had a one-on-one meeting with him.

“We have the best health commissioner in the United States of America, and this is the biggest health care crisis in the history of our state and of our country. And we’re doing everything we can. I could not say enough good things about the woman to my right. I don’t know where we would be without her,” Murphy said.

“We communicate maybe not just every day,” he said. “She’s probably scratching her head as to the amount of communication we have. We’re constantly communicating.”

“I talk with the governor every day,” Persichilli said. “If that doesn’t get his attention, then I text him.”

“She’s probably sick of me at this point, I can only say,” Murphy said.

There have been 28,312 confirmed cases of COVID-19 associated with long-term care facilities in New Jersey, which is 19% of the state total. To date, 528 facilities have had outbreaks. The confirmed cases include 19,454 residents, out of around 90,000, and 8,858 among staff. Ninety-eight staff members have died in confirmed or likely cases.

The long-term care total of 5,368 deaths of residents includes 1,073 cases that are probably connected with COVID-19, but test results aren’t ready yet or no test was done. If those were added to the overall total, the larger number of long-term care deaths would amount to 46% of the 11,659 confirmed and probable COVID deaths.

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Nationally, 41% of COVID-19 deaths have been associated with long-term care facilities, more than 30,000 so far, according to data compiled by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

The foundation calculates New Jersey’s rate as 52%, which compares the LTC number that includes probable COVID deaths with the overall death toll that does not include such cases – which is apples to oranges, so to speak, but that’s the data publicly reported on the state dashboard.

Even at that rate, 16 states were reporting higher rates of deaths associated with long-term facilities than New Jersey and 19 states had lower rates. Fifteen states weren’t reporting those details.

Dates have not yet been set for the Senate’s coronavirus hearings. The health committee will examine nursing homes, group homes and institutions. The state government committee will conduct a hearing into coronavirus in the prisons.

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