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New Jersey Investigates State's Nursing Homes, Hotbed Of COVID-19 Fatalities

May 11, 2020
Originally published on May 12, 2020 12:18 pm

Coronavirus fatalities in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities account for at least one-third of the deaths in 26 states.

In New Jersey's nursing homes, the coronavirus has proved especially deadly: 53% of the more than 9,000 people who have died from COVID-19 as of Monday in the state were long-term care patients or staff.

Now, New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal has opened an investigation into possible misconduct at those facilities.

In addition to the high infection and death rates, Grewal says there were other issues that prompted the launch of the investigation.

"It was also the reporting that we were seeing and hearing about how bodies were being handled, about the lack of communication and transparency with families," he tells All Things Considered. "Because of all of those reasons, we felt an obligation to look for answers and to figure out if something went wrong, what happened, and if there are people to be held accountable, who those people are."

In one case, 17 bodies were discovered last month in a makeshift morgue at a facility in Andover, N.J.

In the first few days after Grewal's office asked the public to report any leads on possible misconduct, he says more than 200 tips poured in.

Here are excerpts from the interview.

Is your investigation more focused on what happened after the deaths at these nursing homes — or on what factors may have contributed to these high death rates?

It's both. We have a number of theories of liability. It could be anything from consumer fraud to criminal homicide to criminal or civil false claims to regulatory violations. If people cut corners, if they put profits over patients, if they weren't adequately staffed, if there was some degree of negligence. But certainly in the handling of corpses, if there was anything that was criminal in that aspect of it as well, we're looking at that as well.

Do you think New Jersey had enough oversight over these facilities, or do you think that had there been closer monitoring, more regulation of these facilities, there may have been fewer deaths?

I think it's premature for me to reach that conclusion; I think certainly that's one aspect of what we'll be looking at. If there are things that could have been done better by any entity, whether that's regulators or operators, because our goal is, like I said at the outset, not only to hold folks accountable if they contributed to death rates or if they cut corners or if they were negligent or criminally or civilly liable, but also to chart a path forward where we could protect these vulnerable populations better against the next pandemic or against the next wave.

Listen to the full interview at the audio link above.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The number of Americans struck by the coronavirus continues to climb upwards - more than 1,300,000 people sick, more than 79,000 dead. No other country comes close to these figures. And more than a third of all coronavirus deaths in the U.S. have occurred in long-term care facilities like nursing homes. That's an estimate from a new analysis by The New York Times.

New Jersey has been hit especially hard. Around half of all the people who have died from COVID-19 in that state were nursing home patients or staff. We're joined now by New Jersey attorney general Gurbir Grewal. He's opened an investigation into possible misconduct by nursing homes in his state.

Welcome.

GURBIR GREWAL: Thank you for having me, Ailsa.

CHANG: So what specifically prompted you to open this investigation beyond the extremely high death rates in these facilities?

GREWAL: Well, I think the national rate, which you just referenced, was 30% or thereabouts. In my state, it's well over 50% today. So it was the death rate, it was the infection rate, and it was also the reporting that we were seeing and hearing about how bodies were being handled, about the lack of communication and transparency with families. And because of all of those reasons, we felt an obligation to look for answers and to figure out, if something went wrong, what happened and, if there are people to be held accountable, who those people are.

CHANG: About bodies being handled, there is one incident in particular that I want to ask you about. Last month a facility in Andover, N.J., was found to have, it seems, set up a makeshift morgue with the bodies of 17 residents who had died from the coronavirus. Have your investigators been able to find out what went wrong there?

GREWAL: Well, I can't get into the specifics about any particular facility because the investigation is very much ongoing. But that is a trend we were seeing across the state, unfortunately. I've said this before. In many ways, this was a 500-year storm because you had people who are vulnerable. You've had a deadly virus that hit nursing homes, where people were in close quarters particularly hard. And the funeral homes couldn't keep up.

And so some of this is to be expected because of the rate of death that we were seeing. But if there was any mishandling of bodies or things of that nature, that's what gives us concern. Unfortunately, this is the reality of my state, where we have over 9,000 people who have died in this battle - that we need to figure out ways to move bodies of those that are deceased more quickly from these different venues.

CHANG: Wait. So is your investigation more focused on what happened after so many people have died at these nursing homes, or is your investigation more focused on before these deaths, what factors may have contributed to these high death rates?

GREWAL: It's both. We have a number of theories of liability. It could be anything from consumer fraud to criminal homicide to criminal or civil false claims to regulatory violations. If people cut corners, if they put profits over patients, if they weren't adequately staffed, if there was some degree of negligence - but certainly, in the handling of corpses, if there was anything that was criminal in that aspect of it as well, we're looking at that as well.

CHANG: Now, last week you asked people in New Jersey to bring your office any tips, any leads about misconduct at these nursing homes. What kind of response have you gotten so far?

GREWAL: It's been overwhelming.

CHANG: Really?

GREWAL: We've had well over, I think, 200 or so leads in the first number of days, and we tend to follow up on each and every one of them. But what we made clear was that this is unfortunately not a place where we can give you updates on a loved one. This is purely - if you have evidence of malfeasance, of any misconduct by individuals or by corporations that run these homes, you could report it to us, and you could do so anonymously. If there is a whistleblower out there that feels more comfortable coming forward through our portal, that's the goal here - that we want to solicit as much information to inform our investigators as they move forward in our review.

CHANG: From your vantage point now, do you think New Jersey had enough oversight over these facilities, or do you think that, had there been closer monitoring, more regulation of these facilities, there may have been fewer deaths?

GREWAL: I think it's premature for me to reach that conclusion. I think certainly, that's one aspect of what we'll be looking at - if there are things that could have been done better by any entity, whether that's regulators or operators - because our goal is, like I said at the outset, not only to hold folks accountable if they contributed to death rates or if they cut corners or if they were negligent or criminally or civilly liable but also to chart a path forward where we could protect these vulnerable populations better against the next pandemic or against the next wave.

CHANG: Gurbir Grewal is the state attorney general of New Jersey.

Thank you very much for joining us today.

GREWAL: Thank you for having me, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.