The coronavirus devastated New Jersey’s nursing homes this spring, killing thousands of residents and prompting a raft of measures to better protect the state’s most vulnerable population.
Since that time, long-term care facilities say they have stockpiled personal protective equipment. They’ve developed protocols for testing residents and staff and isolating those who are sickened. Visitors continue to be limited by state regulators, amid fears the virus will be reintroduced as families reunite with their loved ones.
Yet despite those precautions, the coronavirus continues to creep into the state’s nursing homes, assisted-living centers and other senior facilities, even among those that managed to eradicate their original outbreaks, Department of Health data shows.
Across New Jersey, at least 102 long-term care facilities saw new outbreaks this summer or fall after being declared COVID-19 free, according to a review by NJ Advance Media. Included in those were 11 facilities in which residents or staffers died in the new contagions.
That points to a somber reality as New Jersey grapples with a concerning resurgence of coronavirus in recent weeks: Even as nursing homes have had nearly seven months of experience combating the virus, many remain unable to keep it wholly at bay. Still, those outbreaks are proving less deadly and easier to contain than in March or April, when underprepared facilities were floored by a pandemic that caught them, the state and the country flat-footed, flooding New Jersey’s hospitals and morgues.
On Friday, a union that represents 8,000 nursing home workers in New Jersey expressed concerns about a second wave of the disease and the impacts it could carry.
“Nursing home operators need to be taking every precaution, including giving frontline workers access to n95 masks, gowns and surgical masks before, not after, new outbreaks emerge,” said Milly Silva, the executive vice president of 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East. “Facilities need also to staff-up now, to prevent the type of short-staffing crisis that we experienced earlier this year.”
James McCracken, who heads a trade association of nonprofit senior care organizations, called preparedness a difference of “night and day” from what it once was. Nursing homes have learned to better protect residents and staff, he said, and have largely secured the personal protective equipment that was in such short supply.
“It’s pretty clear that there’s just a much better understanding of the disease, which no one had in the beginning, which was new to everyone,” said McCracken, the chief executive of LeadingAge New Jersey & Delaware.
But seniors and the workers who care for them do continue to be sickened and die, if at rates far lower than at the height of the disease’s sweep. It takes just one positive test for a nursing home to be considered to have a new outbreak, and in many cases, those small-scale infections are not spreading.
The state began publishing an online list of infections and deaths by facility in April after complaints that nursing homes were not being transparent as the disease ripped through New Jersey. But