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New Jersey's State-Run Veterans Homes Hit Hard By Coronavirus

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

In New Jersey, half the deaths from coronavirus have been connected to nursing homes or other long-term care facilities. What's going wrong there? Nancy Solomon of WNYC has been asking.

NANCY SOLOMON, BYLINE: In early February, Stephen Mastropietro (ph) agonized over whether to put his 91-year-old father in the Veterans Memorial Home in Paramus, N.J. And his father's quality of life did improve until the pandemic hit. The state-run veterans home kept telling family members they were free of coronavirus infections. But in fact, residents were already dying. Soon after, his father got sick. Mastropietro checked in every day and was told his father was doing fine.

STEPHEN MASTROPIETRO: And then I called Saturday morning. And it was the same conversation again. Oh, he got up. He walked. He went to the bathroom. He ate. And I'm like, wow. Maybe he's doing OK. He's going to pull through this. Two hours later, they call me and say, we made a mistake. Your father died this morning. So it was kind of rather shocking.

SOLOMON: Then a funeral home called Mastropietro to say his father's body had been misidentified. On one wrist was the ID bracelet that his son had made for him, and on the other, a nursing home bracelet with a different name. So far, 75 veterans have died at the home. And the lack of transparency and chaos characterizes the responses at many of the state's nursing homes. The New Jersey ombudswoman for long-term care, Laurie Facciarossa Brewer, says her phone is ringing off the hook with two types of complaints.

LAURIE FACCIAROSSA BREWER: One is, I can't get through on the line. I can't get a hold of my mother or my father. I think they're sick. And the other type of call is from residents themselves who are in facilities where staff are calling out or staff are getting sick. And people are not getting fed. People are not getting bathed.

SOLOMON: After 17 bodies were found in a makeshift morgue at one New Jersey nursing home over the Easter weekend, a federal inspection found improper mask use and a lack of handwashing. But the unions that represent nursing home staff say it's not fair to blame the workers.

DEBBIE WHITE: You have health care workers who go to work every day who are paid substandard wages, who are looking at people getting sick and thinking, I could make more over there in Amazon.

SOLOMON: Debbie White is president of the Health Professionals & Allied Employees Union.

WHITE: So now you have a population that's vulnerable. And now they're overloaded because they've seen people leave the profession. And it's a recipe for disaster.

SOLOMON: White points to requests the union made over the past decade to increase funding for the State Department of Health, which regulates and inspects long-term care facilities. The New Jersey ombudswoman, Laurie Facciarossa Brewer, says it's not just state oversight that's lacking.

BREWER: Certainly, if there's any silver lining to this horrible pandemic, I hope that it is that the federal government decides to step back from loosening the regulations on long-term care facilities, which is what they were planning to do before this all hit. This is an industry that cannot self-police.

SOLOMON: The nursing homes have responded that this epidemic hit them harder because they care for the frail in close quarters. As the crisis escalated, Governor Phil Murphy called in the National Guard to help nursing homes to make meals and provide Army medics.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PHIL MURPHY: The inconsistent performance by operators in the long-term care facility space is extremely disappointing. That's a diplomatic word.

SOLOMON: But Murphy waited two months before requiring nursing homes to test all residents for COVID. Now he's appointed a team of experts to figure out what went wrong. For NPR News, I'm Nancy Solomon in Maplewood, N.J.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOBO STENSON TRIO'S "THREE SHADES OF A HOUSE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.