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Rally by veterans groups and union workers at the state run Menlo Park nursing home for veterans, where at least 65 residents and one staff member died of cover,  in Edison, N.J. September, 16, 2020 Ed Murray | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

Rally by veterans groups and union workers at the state run Menlo Park nursing home for veterans, where at least 65 residents and one staff member died of cover, in Edison, N.J. September, 16, 2020 Ed Murray | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com (Ed Murray)

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(Tribune News Service) — One nurse at the New Jersey Veterans Memorial at Menlo Park was ordered not to wear a mask because it would “scare the patients” — even as the first deaths from COVID-19 began stalking nursing homes across the country.

When she went to Walmart to buy fabric to make her own, she was threatened that “there could be consequences” for violating the facility’s no-mask mandate.

Another nurse complained to the nursing home’s administrator of being on the units “all day with the residents coughing in our faces.” Still, she would not be provided with a mask to ward off the spread of infection.

“We cannot care for them six feet away. Where is the protection for staff?” she asked.

And one certified nursing assistant refused to come to work despite the demands of her supervisors after she came down with a fever, chills, a cough and other COVID symptoms in early April 2020. Just over a week later, she was hospitalized at Newark Beth Israel Hospital. By May 11, she was dead.

Employees of the troubled veterans home at Menlo Park have filed lawsuits alleging the state, the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, the governor’s office, and administrators of the state-operated nursing home needlessly put them in harm’s way as COVID struck.

Accusing the state of being “grossly negligent, knowingly careless, and reckless,” while deviating from accepted standards of long-term care when the first threats of COVID began to appear, the complaints, filed earlier this month in Superior Court in Middlesex County, cited disciplinary threats and termination for wearing masks. The lawsuits also allege that state and nursing home administrators deliberately released misinformation on the number of cases as residents kept getting sick and died in droves.

They also charged that Menlo Park’s nursing staff was directed to cease testing residents for COVID after several residents tested positive, and forced presumably COVID-positive employees to work at the Menlo Park Home.

In some cases, according to the complaints, public statements were released that were at odds with information the department had in hand, according to internal emails.

Attorney Paul M. da Costa of Roseland, who filed the complaints, said the lawsuits seek “a full accounting” and full measure of justice.

“My clients were the epitome of health care heroes during the early days of COVID. They were in the eye of the storm and the state refused to give them a life jacket to try and survive the storm,” he said.

Two of the state’s veterans homes — the one in Menlo Park and a second in Paramus — reported some of the highest COVID-related death tolls in the nation. A third state-operated facility is in Vineland. Overall, COVID claimed the lives of more than 200 residents and staff in the veterans homes, according to the state.

A spokeswoman for the governor’s office declined to respond to allegations. “Our office does not comment on pending litigation,” said Christi Peace.

The Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, which has direct responsibility for the veterans homes, also said it could not comment on pending litigation, said Capt. Amelia Thatcher.

Last week, New Jersey agreed to pay a second round of settlements totaling $15.9 million to 71 families of residents who died in the state veterans homes in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic. An earlier agreement in December also resolving wrongful death claims paid out nearly $53 million to the families of 119 residents who died from COVID at the between March and May of 2020.

The state admitted no wrongdoing as part of either settlement agreement.

There are currently three separate investigations examining the missteps and possible civil rights violations that occurred at two of the state-run veteran’s nursing homes in New Jersey during the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, one of them launched by the U.S. Justice Department.

And even now, COVID has not gone away in the veterans homes.

Menlo Park has been living with a COVID-19 outbreak since Thanksgiving week that infected 45% of the workforce and one-third of the residents, including 19 veterans who died, according to recent state data. An outbreak is not over until 28 days (representing two incubation periods of 14 days) have elapsed without any new cases.

At the Vineland Veterans Memorial Home, an outbreak began on April 27 and has surged in recent weeks, said a spokeswoman for the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs. So far there have been 71 Vineland residents — about 30% of the population — and 91 employees infected, and one death of a resident, according to the state Department of Health’s website.

The third veterans home, in Paramus, has been the least affected by an outbreak that began there on April 11. So far, seven residents and 71 of employees have contracted COVID-19 in the latest wave, according to state data.

The well-publicized problems at New Jersey’s veterans homes already has led to sharp criticism, sparking major internal changes following revelations detailing the full scope of the failures — and the extent of the death toll. Elizabeth Schiff-Heedles, the former CEO of Menlo Park, was fired in October 2020 as part of a wide-ranging shakeup of the veterans homes by Gov. Phil Murphy in response to the deaths.

Hundreds of documents released to NJ Advance Media last year through public records requests further revealed the depth of a crisis that overwhelmed staff as they struggled to care for veterans amid not only the early no-mask edicts, but daily shortages of staffing and inadequate testing of residents.

The Menlo Park nurse who decided to make her own mask said she acted because she sought to protect her residents and her family in a sworn deposition that was part of the new court filings.

“I went to Walmart one day and I bought some material,” she said. “I don’t know how to do sewing. I got some glue … and I made it.”

She was told not to wear it on the floor where she worked.

“I’m scaring the patients,” she said she was told. Her supervisor told her if she continued to wear it, she would have to “punch out” and leave.

She later tested positive for COVID.

Even the ambulance company transporting patients from the facility to hospitals or doctor’s appointments were told not to wear masks, court filings noted.

“If they are healthy, they shouldn’t,” said an administrator in an email, included in the court filings. “If they are sick, then they should not be entering our facility.”

The complaints by the Menlo Park staff members said the state and nursing home administrators needlessly endangered the health, safety and physical and emotional well-being of its employees by failing to properly and adequately plan and prepare for infectious disease outbreaks.

The court filings also noted the state also failed to request the assistance of the National Guard from New Jersey or other states despite being fully aware of the magnitude and scope of the COVID infection at the Menlo Park home among both its residents and employees.

Remarking that he has been asked many times “why in the world would the state direct employees from wearing masks, da Costa said there were people making those decisions “who were simply unqualified and or unfit.”

The litigation charged as well that the state had even failed to follow rules, guidelines and directives from the World Health Organization.

All the while, the lawsuits alleged, officials were lying about was really happening at Menlo Park as the virus swept through the building — “suppressing information from the public and media that likely would have saved countless lives.”

tsherman@njadvancemedia.com

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