Voters in Sussex County will weigh in on whether an independent and bipartisan investigation into the management of the state’s long-term care facilities should go forward, after more than 8,000 New Jersey residents died in those facilities during the Covid-19 pandemic.
The county commissioners on April 28 approved the ballot question in a 4-0 vote. Commissioner Herbert Yardley was absent.
The investigation would look into governmental policies, regulations, and oversight of the facilities, which include nursing homes and veteran’s homes.
About 70 deaths were linked to Andover Subacute and Rehabilitation Center during the early stages of the pandemic. The number included both residents and nurses. Five bodies were found on April 12, 2020, and 13 more were found in a room used to house deceased residents until they can be picked up by a funeral home the next day.
Commissioners said they have sent multiple Open Public Records Act (OPRA) requests to the New Jersey health department asking for information about the matter but were flatly denied. Commissioners Director Dawn Fantasia said the state had asked them for an extension on the OPRA request. That was last August.
“I firmly believe the state is hiding behind the pandemic,” Fantasia said.
During the early days of the pandemic, she said, there were 120 contacts between the county and state health departments, but none were answered until the deaths at Andover Subacute were reported.
Anthony Fasano, the commissioners’ deputy director, said New Jersey has the highest death tolls in long-term facilities in the nation.
John Dalmas of Frankford, who had asked for an investigation at the March 24 commissioners meeting, said he was pleased to see the item on the agenda. He said the governor and those who work with him need to be held accountable.
“I only wish it could be on (the ballot) earlier than November, but this is the way it has to be,” he said.
County and state
Others questioned the commissioners’ motives. Kristy Lavin of Hardyston said she didn’t object to the investigation but to the way commissioners were going about it. She pointed to an investigation by New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal and a new law enacted with bipartisan support to create the Task Force on Long-Term Care Quality and Safety. She said the task force includes people who were on the front lines, including family members and nursing home staff, and has a goal of long-term reform.
“Until the politicians, lawmakers, and legislators start trying to work together and stop using this horrible tragedy to their political advantage to prove how bad the other party is, there is little chance of real improvement,” Lavin said.
Ken Collins of Andover said the Sussex County government should also be investigated regarding its oversight of the facility.
“It is absolutely no surprise to anyone here what happened at Andover Subacute,” he said. “Everyone knew what was going on, and everybody turned a blind eye to it. Unless the county government is willing to turn its eye on itself and find the shortcomings in its community that let this tragedy occur, then the investigation is a sham.”
Fantasia said the rules that govern long-term care facilities are set down by the state, not the county.
“This isn’t about wanting to know what happened at New Jersey’s long-term care facilities,” Commissioner Fasano said. “It’s about needing to know.”
“It is absolutely no surprise to anyone here what happened at Andover Subacute. Everyone knew what was going on and everybody turned a blind eye to it. Unless the county government is willing to turn its eye on itself and find the shortcomings in its community that let this tragedy occur, then the investigation is a sham.” Ken Collins