When NJ veterans homes spiraled amid COVID, NorthJersey.com revealed glaring missteps – NorthJersey.com

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At NJ Veterans Home stricken with coronavirus deaths, Boy Scout plays nightly tribute

Alex Saldana said he plans on playing Taps outside of the New Jersey Veteran’s Home in Paramus every night to honor veterans.

Anne-Marie Caruso, NorthJersey

COVID-19 devastated nursing homes in New Jersey, but nowhere was the virus more deadly than at two state-run veterans homes in Menlo Park and Paramus, which had more than 200 resident deaths. More than 400 other residents and employees were infected.

Over the initial months of the pandemic in 2020, and then continuing through 2022, deep reporting by NorthJersey.com’s Scott Fallon and Lindy Washburn — based on tips from plugged-in sources that started with an encrypted email from a manager, as well as clues mined by sifting through hundreds of documents obtained through public records requests — revealed why the homes were so devastated.

It culminated in articles that showed how COVID-19 ran rampant through the Paramus home because of poor decisions, lax infection control and an insistence by management that the disease was not at the facilities. Internal emails also showed that managers so adamantly objected to staff wearing protective masks in the pandemic’s first month that they devised penalties with help from Gov. Phil Murphy’s office.

Their reporting continued through 2022 as more suits and investigations were launched and Murphy finally moved to privatize the operation of the homes. The anonymous source came forward to say more about the Paramus veterans home out of frustration at what has still not happened since the initial COVID crisis.  

An outbreak of coronavirus disease at the New Jersey Veterans Home in Paramus has killed at least 10 residents and likely contributed to the deaths of some 27 more over the past two weeks. To cope, 36 medics from the Army National Guard is deployed.

The National Guard arrived at the Paramus veterans home to help deal with a coronavirus outbreak that has infected 40 and killed 10. Twenty-four other veterans have died since the outbreak began, documents show. “It’s horrible, horrible,” said Mitchell Haber, whose father is a resident. “They’re all sick. They’ve lost almost half their patients.”

The coronavirus has continued to devastate the New Jersey Veterans Home in Paramus in recent days, killing eight more residents and sending dozens to the hospital. The eight deaths bring the official COVID-19 death toll at the facility to 24.

A nurse at the Paramus veterans home told Tom Mastropietro’s family he no longer had a fever. The veteran had made a miraculous rebound after being diagnosed with COVID-19. “I was stunned but happy,” his son Steve said. Hours later, the staff called again. They had made a terrible mistake.

State officials who run the Paramus veterans home, where at least 49 residents have died from COVID, insist no staff member has died. But a nurse’s aide who worked in the home — and had put in his retirement papers but was asked to stay on — died on April 16.

A 61-year-old nurse’s aide at the Menlo Park veterans home has died of COVID. Her death is the second among direct-care professionals employed by the state veterans’ system. Nurse’s aide Monemise Romelus fell sick in early April, before they were distributing masks.

The Paramus veterans home claimed to provide “the very finest health care service.” But when federal inspectors arrived in April — after 46 residents had died from COVID — what they found was among the very worst. Residents who had tested positive for COVID mingled in one unit with others who awaited test results. 

As he sat terrified in his room at the Menlo Park veterans home where COVID-19 was claiming life after life, Howard Conyack called his daughter and left a voicemail. Conyack, 81, had served in the Marine Corps, and he rarely cried. But his voice broke. “I’m worried, honey,” he said. “I think I have one of the symptoms.” 

Executives of the Paramus and Menlo Park veterans homes where 190 residents and two caregivers died amid the COVID-19 pandemic were ousted along with their bosses at the state Military and Veterans Affairs Department in a major shakeup.

Peter Richards couldn’t speak or move by the time his daughters visited him in late May at the Paramus veterans home. It had been more than a month since Peter had been diagnosed with COVID. The 85-year-old Air Force veteran survived the first weeks — but was now bedridden and in hospice care. 

Managers at New Jersey’s veterans homes where more than 190 residents have died from COVID-19 barred employees from wearing masks during the first weeks of the outbreak, and devised penalties with the help of Gov. Murphy’s office against nurses who wore the homes’ masks, emails obtained by NorthJersey.com show.

In response to a public records request by NorthJersey.com for communication within the Murphy administration over a lack of mask-wearing at the state veterans home as COVID spread, the state released a handful of new emails, but they are so heavily redacted that it’s impossible to know what they might say.

Why were New Jersey veterans homes hit so hard by the pandemic? NorthJersey.com’s reporting described how COVID-19 ran rampant through the Paramus home due to some disturbing practices and conditions, and internal emails showed managers were so opposed to staff wearing masks in the first month of the pandemic that they devised penalties.

The state Attorney General’s Office has convened a grand jury that is investigating the state-run veterans homes — where 202 people have died from COVID-19 — for possible criminal charges, according to documents obtained by NorthJersey.com.

When scores of veterans died from COVID-19 at their state-run nursing home this spring, government officials quickly ordered an investigation that found catastrophic errors by management, fired the head of the home and made plans to avoid another disaster. But this wasn’t New Jersey, which — despite having 148 deaths at state-run veterans homes — has done almost nothing to investigate what went wrong.

The federal Department of Veteran Affairs issued a strict COVID-19 vaccine mandate for all its health care employees: Get fully vaccinated or lose your job. But in New Jersey, where at least 205 residents and staff died from coronavirus at state-run veterans homes, Gov. Murphy won’t say whether he will do the same.

A resident died from COVID-19 at a state veterans home for the first time in months, bringing the death toll at the three facilities to 206, among the highest at nursing homes nationwide.

Federal investigators descended on two state-run veterans homes as part of the U.S. government’s investigation into deficiencies in care at the nursing homes that had one of the highest COVID death tolls in the nation.

Gov. Murphy’s administration has agreed to pay $53 million to families of 119 seniors, most of whom died of COVID at state-run veterans homes where questionable practices and poor decisions led to one of the nation’s highest nursing home death tolls during the pandemic.

Two years after the first confirmed COVID case among the three state-run veterans homes, where more than 200 residents died, families are no closer to knowing the events surrounding their loved ones’ deaths.

A third investigation into the deaths of more than 200 residents of New Jersey’s veterans homes during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic has been opened by an independent state agency that reports on government malfeasance.

Lawyers for families of those who died at New Jersey’s three veterans homes during the COVID pandemic have filed almost 70 more claims against the Murphy administration claiming that negligence led to their loved ones’ demise. 

Jack Smith, a decorated Korean War veteran, beamed with joy despite having dementia when his family last visited him at the Vineland veterans home in March 2020. Five months later his wife and stepdaughter barely recognized him.  

Dozens of employees of New Jersey’s veterans homes that were devastated by COVID are suing the Murphy administration, claiming that a cascading series of poor decisions — including barring masks in the pandemic’s early days — caused them to get ill and led to a high nursing home death toll.

Gov. Murphy vowed changes would be made to ensure better care of the elderly at the state-run veterans home in Menlo Park. But state health inspectors found the opposite over the summer. A report cited the facility for violations that put residents in “immediate jeopardy.”

“Vetkeeper” — pseudonym for an anonymous source who provided NorthJersey.com valuable information about how the Paramus veterans home spiraled into crisis at the start of the pandemic — reveals his identity and says more about the veterans home, frustrated at what has not happened since that initial COVID crisis.  

Operation of New Jersey’s state-run veterans homes, where more than 200 residents died during the pandemic, should be removed from the state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs and made part of a new state department, the chair of the state Senate Health Committee said.

The federal agency that acts as the primary funding source for New Jersey’s troubled veterans homes began withholding payments in November at the Menlo Park facility after Gov. Murphy’s administration failed to fix major problems with infection control.

After promising for two years to conduct a “full accounting” of how his administration handled the pandemic, Gov. Murphy said the state hired two consultants to conduct an “independent review” that will also include the heavy loss of life in nursing homes.

Two years after they suffered some of the highest COVID deaths tolls in the nation and with problems still persisting, Gov. Murphy took the unusual step to outsource the management of New Jersey’s three troubled veterans homes to a private company.

The independent review launched last month by Gov. Phil Murphy into how well his administration handled the pandemic will cost taxpayers more than $400 an hour, according to a contract obtained by NorthJersey.com.

The head of the state-run veterans home in Menlo Park is gone amid another turbulent time for the nursing home as Gov. Murphy seeks to privatize management following a long outbreak of COVID this year that killed more than a dozen.