Coronavirus deaths nearly tripled at New Jersey nursing homes in December, as facilities that care for the state’s most vulnerable population continue to struggle to keep the virus out of their midst nearly 10 months into the pandemic.
At least 310 long-term care residents and one staffer died of complications of COVID-19 in the month, a death toll that exceeded September, October and November combined, according to an ongoing NJ Advance Media analysis of state data.
The accounting came during a week of otherwise happy news for nursing homes, as long-awaited vaccinations of residents and employees kicked off ― a massive effort that Gov. Phil Murphy has likened to a “light at the end of the tunnel,” albeit one that will stretch into at least February.
In the meantime, COVID-19 continues to sweep through many nursing homes, which already represent about 45% of New Jersey’s more than 17,000 confirmed coronavirus deaths, a grim figure that places them at the top of the nation in deaths per capita. Deaths have ballooned despite infection control practices that are far more extensive than in the spring, and despite stricter testing requirements temporarily imposed by the state at the end of November to try to stanch the reinvigorated virus’ spread into facilities.
The rising deaths touched all parts of the state, from large, hospital-affiliated facilities across New Jersey to a tiny rest home in Warren County in which nearly every resident was apparently sickened.
At Cedar Grove Respiratory and Nursing Center in Monroe Township, Gloucester County, 87 residents contracted coronavirus and 14 died in an outbreak that came after the facility was largely spared during the pandemic’s first wave, said its administrator, Yisroel Broyde. He said the 180-bed center, which includes the state’s largest ventilator unit, houses the “most vulnerable of the vulnerable,” with seven of its deaths involving residents who were receiving end-of-life care.
Four residents remained hospitalized, Broyde said Thursday in a statement that praised his employees for their efforts to bring the contagion under control.
“Two of our staff members literally lived in the building for three weeks to help mitigate the spread of the virus,” Broyde said.
At a news briefing Wednesday, state Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli noted that over 425 facilities have active coronavirus outbreaks, more than double the number of early November. She said the increase “certainly does not make us happy,” while highlighting efforts made by nursing homes to stockpile protective equipment, isolate those infected and regularly test for the coronavirus.
“We have PPE. We have cohorting. We have staff,” Persichilli said. “They are doing all the right things, and the disease is still coming into the long-term care facilities.”
In total, from Dec. 3 to Dec. 30, at least 111 facilities recorded confirmed COVID-19 deaths, including 25 in which five or more residents died, NJ Advance Media’s review of Department of Health outbreak lists found. Over that time, more than 5,600 residents and staff tested positive for the virus, a 72% increase in new cases from November.
The at-least 311 deaths compared to 45 deaths recorded in September, 65 in October and 111 in November. They came during a month in which the coronavirus socked New Jersey, with overall deaths across the state reaching levels not seen since May.
“Sadly, COVID-19 cases continue to rise in New Jersey as they are across America,” said Stuart Shapiro, the interim president and chief executive of the Health Care Association of New Jersey, which represents the nursing home industry. “Long-term care centers are reflections of the communities in which they are located, despite increased testing and other mitigation measures that hard-working staff are taking.”
Seacrest Village, a 171-bed facility in Little Egg Harbor in Ocean County, was among the nursing homes reporting a surge of new cases in December. It recorded 17 deaths in an outbreak that sickened 80 residents and 54 staff members, according to the state. Seacrest officials did not return requests for comment.
In Warren County, eight resident deaths were reported at Clover Rest Home, a 33-bed facility in Knowlton. In total, 29 residents were infected at a home that federal data shows had 30 occupied beds in late November.
Officials from Clover Rest Home also did not return requests for comment.
The Department of Health does not make it easy for the public to track how the coronavirus is spreading in nursing homes. While the department regularly maintains a list of facilities with outbreaks, those lists do not show whether a given facility has seen cases increase from the previous list, and the department does not make archived versions available on its COVID-19 information dashboard for comparison.
To count increases in new cases, NJ Advance Media compared each list published over the past four months to capture whenever a home logged new deaths and new resident or staff infections.
Jefferson Health Care Center, a 190-bed facility in Washington Township in Gloucester County, recorded 11 deaths, on top of four in the previous month, according to the state.
Nicole Pensiero, a Jefferson Health spokeswoman, said the nursing home routinely tests residents and staff for the coronavirus, and abides by safety protocols that include personal protective equipment, frequent hand washing and social distancing. She said the facility hopes to begin administering vaccinations in early January.
“COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on long-term care facilities around the world,” Pensiero said in a statement. “We have mourned the loss of several residents of the Jefferson Health Care Center.”
In Hudson County, The Harborage had eight deaths, though a spokesman said they occurred over a two-month period beginning Oct. 31. Seven of those deaths involved residents who had contacted COVID-19 prior to being admitted, according to Hackensack Meridian Health, which runs the 247-bed nursing home in North Bergen.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with their loved ones and everyone that’s experienced the devastating impacts of this pandemic,” Ken Aber, Hackensack Meridian’s senior vice president of post-acute care, said in a statement. “The Harborage has and will continue to take extensive precautionary and protective measures for its residents.”
It is discouraging that the coronavirus continues to make its way into nursing homes, said James McCracken, who heads LeadingAge New Jersey & Delaware, which represents nonprofit senior care organizations. He said facilities are optimistic the vaccine will ultimately allow them to turn a corner, though it will take time for it to be sufficiently distributed.
“I know there’s been an increase in deaths,” McCracken said. “Certainly our members are doing everything they possibly can to keep all their residents and staff safe, but this virus is very difficult to manage.”
With cases rising in the community, it isn’t surprising that deaths have leaped at nursing homes, said Stephanie Silvera, an epidemiologist at Montclair State University. Given the asymptomatic spread of the disease, facilities remain at risk of having the virus introduced by staff and others who must come and go, she said.
“When we have this really rampant, out of control community transmission, the canary in the coal mine is going to be the nursing homes,” Silvera said.
That leaves the state’s vaccination efforts a critical step to protecting nursing home residents. On Wednesday, Persichilli said 539 facilities have been scheduled to receive their first vaccinations and more are expected to be added in the coming weeks. Through the beginning of February, she said, the state anticipates more than 109,000 residents and staff will receive vaccinations.
Still, Silvera said, it will likely take until late February to early March before enough people in long-term care have received vaccines to establish the widespread immunities necessary to slow the disease’s spread.
“The vaccine is really, really good news,” Silvera said. “But if we are talking about the light at the end of the tunnel, we are still very far away.”
Correction: This post has been updated to correct the Gloucester County location of Jefferson Health Care Center, which is in Washington Township.
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Riley Yates may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
NJ Advance Media reporter Matt Arco contributed to this report.