An extraordinary number of deaths over Easter weekend overwhelmed a nursing home in Andover, where police responding to an anonymous tip found more than a dozen bodies, according to news reports and an email from an owner of the home.
Five bodies were found April 12 and 13 more were found the next day at the Andover Subacute and Rehabilitation Center in Andover Township, Police Chief Eric Danielson told The New Jersey Herald.
The remains found at the facility were among 68 deaths linked to the home, including both residents and two nurses, The New York Times reported, citing Danielson, other officials and county records shared with a federal official. At least 26 of those deaths were confirmed by laboratory tests to be related to COVID-19, the newspaper said.
Staffing at the facility was adequate, but an extraordinary number of deaths over the weekend overwhelmed the facility's resources, a co-owner of the home said in an email Thursday to the office of U.S. Rep. Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey.
"The back up and after hours holiday weekend issues, plus more than average deaths, contributed to the presence of more deceased than normal in the facility holding room,'' co-owner Chaim Scheinbaum wrote in the email.
The 13 bodies were found in a room used to house deceased residents until they can be picked up by a funeral home, the Herald reported.
The area has a normal capacity of four, "with a maximum of 12," Scheinbaum wrote.
Staffing at the facility is "solid" with 12 nurses, one more than normal, and 39 nursing assistants, one fewer than normal, Scheinbaum wrote.
Police released a photo of a box truck parked outside the home that was being used to store the bodies after a hazmat team removed them.
More than 100 residents and staff members have tested positive for the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, the Times reported.
Gottheimer, a Democrat whose district covers Andover Township, said he was notified over the weekend that the facility was "desperate for body bags." He said he has received calls and emails from concerned relatives.
"One of my concerns is that these facilities are not communicating in real time,'' he said. "That's what I've been hearing from families. That's outrageous, it's completely unacceptable that they have to call me for updates.''
Gov. Phil Murphy said at a news briefing on April 16 that he has asked the state attorney general to look into what happened in Andover, as well as at any other nursing homes that have had many deaths.
The Democratic governor said he was "outraged that bodies of the dead were allowed to pile up in makeshift morgue at the facility. New Jerseyans living in our long-term care facilities deserve to be cared for with respect, compassion and dignity.''
Information is hard to get
The Township Journal reported the high number of deaths in Andover relative to other municipalities in Sussex County on April 13 but found it difficult to find out from the state and county health departments whether they were related to Andover Subacute.
The town of Andover is the hardest-hit of Sussex County municipalities, with 103 of the county's 554 positive cases as of Wednesday morning. Many of those deaths are now reported to have happened at Andover Subacute.
Michelle Block at the Sussex County COVID-19 hotline said Wednesday morning that she said she didn't have specific information about Andover Subacute and transferred the Township Journal to Jane Morse, the hotline's confidential assistant. Block said Morse was in a meeting but would call the paper back. After another call to Morse, she would only offer to put the paper on the county's press release list.
Dawn Thomas in the New Jersey Department of Health's Office of Communications told the Township Journal in an emailed message that "local health officials conduct investigations of cases in facilities located in their jurisdictions."
She said the health department has ordered nursing homes to notify residents, families, and staff of COVID-19 oubreaks in their facilities.
In addition, Thomas said, the health department has barred new admissions to nursing homes that cannot separate residents into three groups: those who are ill or COVID-19 positive, those who are not symptomatic but who have been exposed to the virus, and those who have not been exposed. This week New Jersey Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli said 123 facilities have been prohibited from admitting patients because they haven't demonstrated they can effectively do this.
The health department issued 18 orders to nursing homes in the past month, she said, including curtailed visitation, screening of all people going in and out, allowing the hire of out-of-state nursing assistants, and universal masking.
The previous week week, Persichilli said she was preparing to transfer residents from overwhelmed nursing homes to those better able to care for them.
On April 9, the Andover Police Department posted on Facebook: "While the statistics as they pertain to Andover Township appear to be alarming as to the number of reported positive tests for COVID-19, we want to inform you a large portion of these numbers are within a long term care facility. This is in no way a statement to diminish the importance of the numbers being reported, but to provide as much information as possible to our residents."
The coronavirus has spread quickly through nursing homes around the country, leading to pressure on federal health officials to publicly track COVID-19 infections and deaths. In New Jersey, 471 residents of long-term care facilities had died through Wednesday, and 358 of the state's 375 facilities have reported positive cases, according to state health officials.
Persichilli said that in the last week, the state had distributed more than 100,000 N95 masks, nearly 700,000 surgical masks, 7,000 face shields and more than 700,000 gloves to long-term facilities.
Still, state health officials have declined to name nursing homes where residents have died, with one exception last month when they ordered the closure of St. Joseph's Senior Home in Woodbridge after staff illnesses left the facility unable to care for residents. More than 90 residents were moved to another facility.
Sussex County's epicenter
As of April 20, Andover residents account for 34 of the county's 56 COVID-19-related fatalities, according to the Sussex County Department of Health. The two most recent deaths, reported on April 20, are two Andover men in their 70s.
The number of COVID-19-related deaths in Andover has increased by more than one-third in less than a week.
Andover has 130 confirmed cases of COVID-19, out of the Sussex County total of 688. Andover represents 4 percent of the county's population.
Associated Press writer Mike Catalini contributed to this report.