NEWTON, NJ (Sussex County) – Close to a year after the County of Sussex’s initial Open Public Records Act requests pertaining to the Andover Subacute and Rehabilitation facilities, and on the heels of two editorials from New Jersey media outlets calling on the Murphy Administration for greater transparency about New Jersey’s nursing home deaths, Sussex County’s Board of County Commissioners reaffirms its continued stance for transparency and a bipartisan investigation.
The County of Sussex continues to wait on those OPRA requests, after County Counsel Kevin D. Kelly first contacted New Jersey’s Department of Health on May 1, 2020 and May 12, 2020, for 19 different types of records. Kelly’s last correspondence with the state was in August, when Murphy Administration Department of Health officials requested another extension.
Among the documents Kelly asked for, were routine and complaint inspection reports for the Subacute facilities, the Department of Health’s communications with Andover Subacute’s legal counsel Christopher Porrino, communications between the state and County of Sussex and Andover Subacute’s personal protective equipment or PPE inventory.
“The governor often says he’s being ‘crystal clear,'” Commissioner Director Dawn Fantasia said. “I’ll tell you what’s crystal clear. The New Jersey Department of Health and the Murphy Administration were clearly warned. Warned that patients would die. Warned that by demanding long-term care facilities – facilities that were in no way prepared with adequate staffing, adequate training, or adequate PPE – take COVID patients, that patients would die who wouldn’t have otherwise died had positive patients been screened.”
“There was no such thing as ‘safe separation,’” Fantasia said. “New Jersey Department of Health spokeswoman Donna Leusner is on record stating that within a week, 200 facilities notified the state that they could not accept new admissions. And the fact that the Governor and Trenton Democrats are continuing to evade a formal investigation speaks volumes to their complacency and failure to accept accountability in order to ensure such a tragedy is prevented in the future.”
“I will continue this fight for transparency, and ultimately, I will bring this fight to the residents of Sussex County, to help them get them the answers they well deserve, after the county experienced such a devastating loss of friends and neighbors in the Andover Subacute facilities,” Fantasia said. “The County of Sussex made more than 30 calls to New Jersey’s Department of Health that went unanswered, and while I was serving as Deputy Director for the Board, I personally took calls from brokenhearted family members who had little to no information about their loved ones in Andover.”
“Why can’t we get a simple inspection document?” Commissioner Herbert Yardley asked. “Is there something they [New Jersey’s Department of Health] don’t want us to see?”
Yardley suggested the County of Sussex file a lawsuit in Federal Court against the State of New Jersey.
Editorials by Drew Sheneman of the Star-Ledger, as well as by the USA Today Network Atlantic Group Editorial Board, have called in conjunction with the 16th Annual Sunshine Week – an initiative of the News Leaders Association to foster government transparency – for more openness from Gov. Phil Murphy’s Administration into requests for information about New Jersey’s nursing homes.
Sheneman wrote, “It’s time for the governor and Democratic party to stop stalling and launch an investigation into what went wrong.”
Sheneman’s column reiterated New Jersey has the highest COVID death toll for nursing homes in the nation, with 124 of every 1,000 residents for a total of approximately 8,000, as compared to New York and Pennsylvania ranked 34th and 14th. Fellow Star-Ledger columnist Paul Mulshine cited New Jersey as having the world’s highest nursing home death toll in his March 11 column.
“When you’re out of touch with the people of New Jersey and their needs, something is really wrong,” Commissioner Chris Carney said. “Governor Murphy’s poor decision-making continually shocks the state. The most disturbing of all of his decisions is how he sent several thousand people to their death beds during the pandemic.”
“No matter what party line you stand with, we can’t stand for this,” Carney said. “We need answers and we need them now. Governor Murphy and his administration need to be held responsible for the friends and family members that were lost.”
“The ravaging of lives in long-term care facilities during the pandemic didn’t just happen, it was fostered by directives from the Murphy Administration,” Commissioner Sylvia Petillo said. “Sussex County’s pleas for help went unanswered, simply ignored, while the fear, suffering, and horror of the situation continued.”
“The lack of enforcement and complacency perpetuated the problems and devastated our most precious population,” Petillo said. “Their families and the public deserve answers! It is time for a thorough investigation.”
Both Sheneman and Mulshine have also called out Senate President Steve Sweeney, D-3rd Dist., originally on board with a bipartisan investigation into the nursing home response in May 2020, but who has since put the brakes on Democrat participation in the investigation. According to published news reports, in January Senate Republicans began writing to Sweeney to form the bipartisan committee as he had promised but received no response from the Senate President.
“The ruling party has said all the right things about supporting an investigation while still delaying it,” Sheneman wrote. “Senate President Steve Sweeney said he supports an investigation but only when the time is right. When exactly that will be is a mystery but something tells me it’s after the gubernatorial election.”
Several Senate and Assembly Republicans held their first in a series of independent hearings into the nursing home response on March 5, which their Democrat colleagues and New Jersey Department of Health representatives declined to participate in.
The Star-Ledger has pursued this topic, its editorial board on March 14 calling it “disappointing” that Democrats and the Murphy Administration did not participate in the March 5 hearing and “the majority party isn’t showing the necessary vigor to investigate anything that might embarrass the governor during a re-election campaign.”
On the same date as that editorial, Star-Ledger reporters Susan K. Livio and Ted Sherman released a story that after Department of Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli issued a directive that mandated COVID positive into long-term care facilities, one nursing home administrator warned Persichilli during a taped meeting, “Patients will die,” if Persichilli moved forward with that mandate.
Sussex County’s Senator Steve Oroho, R-24th Dist., one of the hearing’s panelists, said he contacted Murphy’s office on March 27, 2020 after calls were made to his office about allegations of outside COVID positive patients being accepted into the Andover Subacute facilities. Oroho noted during the hearing this was before the March 31, 2020 Department of Health directive was issued that COVID positive individuals cannot be denied entry or re-entry into long-term care facilities.
The USA Today editorial called out the Murphy administration for its lack of participation in the independent hearings, as well as its failure to respond to OPRA requests.
“As veteran state house correspondent Dustin Racioppi reported earlier this week, public records requests made over the last year have been frequently postponed, denied – or postponed for weeks and later denied,” they wrote.
Terrorism threats, “no responsive records” and “advisory, consultative or deliberate materials,” were among the replies the USA Today Network received for its OPRA requests.
The USA Today Network cited the problem was due in part to the Murphy Administration bill that waived the typical seven-day response to OPRA inquiries, which in July was revised, but stalled in New Jersey’s Assembly.
In addition to suggesting the Assembly move forward with the revised OPRA legislation, the Editorial Board also wrote, “To that end, we strongly encourage our readers to directly contact their Assembly representative and urge their support. New Jersey deserves more transparent government.”
The State of New Jersey-licensed Andover Subacute and Rehabilitation I and II, each recently renamed Limecrest Subacute and Rehabilitation and Woodland Behavioral and Nursing Center, were launched into the international spotlight in April 2020 after news broke about the discovery of 17 bodies in a makeshift morgue in the former Subacute II facility.
Commissioner Deputy Director Anthony Fasano led the charge for the Board as the liaison for Sussex County’s Division of Health, asking Gov. Phil Murphy to activate the National Guard.
In an April 29, 2020 press release, over 10 days after news broke of the makeshift morgue, Fasano expressed, “Despite consistent alerts from county officials to state officials, clearly expressing the urgency and magnitude of this crisis [at Andover Subacute and Rehabilitation Center], it has been met with a state response that has been insufficient in resolving it.”
Murphy did not order the National Guard to the former Andover Subacute facilities until May 7, although in his Executive Order 103 declaring the first State of Emergency and Public Health Emergency on March 9, 2020, the New Jersey National Guard was activated to “provide aid to those localities where there is a threat or danger to the public health, safety and welfare and to authorize the employment of any supporting vehicles, equipment, communications, or supplies, as may be necessary to support the members as ordered.”