A rally in September 2020 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 coronavirus.

A rally in September 2020 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 coronavirus. (Ed Murray, NJ Advance Media for

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(Tribune News Service) — At least two of the three state-run veterans homes would be required to create single-occupancy bedrooms to help control the spread of COVID-19 and other infectious diseases if a bill a Senate committee approved Monday is eventually signed into law.

The state veterans homes — nursing homes for veterans and their spouses — had among the highest death rates in the country from the pandemic, claiming the lives of more than 200 residents and staff, according to the state. One attorney who represents dozens of families who sued the state, however suggests the number of fatalities may actually be more than 240.

Most of these fatalities occurred in the New Jersey Veterans Memorial Home in Menlo Park and the New Jersey Veterans Memorial Home in Paramus and are the focus of the bill sponsored by Sen. Joseph Cryan, D- Union. It passed the Senate Military and Veterans Affairs Committee by a 5-0 vote.

The bill would require the state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs to convert one ward in each facility to solo bedrooms and “upgrade the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems to infection control system standards,” according to the legislation, (S3492). The Adjutant General Brig. Gen. Lisa J. Hou, who oversees the department, would have the latitude to decide whether further modifications ought to be made to enhance safety.

But the renovations and improvements would have to be completed within a year, or she would be called before the legislature to explain the reason for the delay, according to the latest version of the bill.

In a hearing at the Statehouse, Robert McNulty of the Vietnam Veterans of America told the committee he supported the renovations. But said he could not fathom why only Paramus and Menlo Park would get the upgrades, excluding the veterans home in Vineland.

“One-third of our veteran population will be ignored,” McNulty said. “Vineland is the oldest state-run veterans facility, it has more residents or staff than Paramus and Menlo Park, yet there are no provisions to implement infection control here. Really? You’re OK with that? I have a heck of a time swallowing that.”

As of Monday, Vineland houses 203 residents, Menlo Park had 187 and Paramus 182, according to the department’s website. Vineland employs 525 workers compared to Menlo Park’s 431 and Paramus’ 416.

New Jersey received billions of dollars from the federal government’s American Rescue Fund, so it’s not like the state can’t afford to improve Vineland, too, he said. “Someone has really dropped the ball,” McNulty said.

Cryan, who also chairs the committee, explained that he and other lawmakers are trying to raise the quality of care at Paramus and Menlo Park to Vineland’s level. Paramus and Menlo Park each received a two-star quality rating from the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, compared to Vineland’s five-star rating.

COVID killed 23 Vineland residents and one employee since the pandemic began nearly three years ago, according to state data.

“It was our intention to close the gap” between Vineland and Paramus and Menlo Park, Cryan said. He vowed the legislation, which also would need to be amended in the state Assembly, ultimately would include Vineland. “I can’t imagine we wouldn’t do that, he said.

Menlo Park is in the midst of a 14-month COVID-19 outbreak that began Thanksgiving week 2021. A total of 123 residents and 295 employees having been infected, and 15 residents have died during the period, according to the state Health Department COVID website’s most recent data, from Jan. 25.

The health department deems an outbreak complete when no one living or working at a facility has contracted COVID-19 for four weeks, the equivalent of two consecutive two-week incubation periods.

The Murphy Administration has paid out collectively nearly $69 million to settle lawsuits filed by the families of 190 deceased veterans homes residents from Menlo Park and Paramus. The lawsuits had accused the state of negligence in allowing the disease to run rampant inside the facilities, but the cases were settled without the state admitting to any wrongdoing.

A federal investigation into the deaths at the facilities, meanwhile, is still ongoing, as are two separate state investigations.

In addition, the Health Department suspended new admissions at Menlo Park following a scathing inspection report that in addition to the year’s long outbreak, revealed serious health and safety violations. The CEO was replaced last month.

At Gov. Phil Murphy’s request, Hou issued a “request for proposal” to recruit a private-sector company to manage the Menlo Park, as well consulting services at the Paramus and Vineland Memorial Veterans Homes.

NJ Advance Media staff writer Ted Sherman contributed to this report.

©2023 Advance Local Media LLC.


Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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