As COVID-19 cases slowly rise again, 1 in 4 nursing homes in N.J. report an outbreak

As COVID-19 cases slowly rise in New Jersey and across the country, about one in four nursing homes and assisted living facilities in the state have reported an outbreak in the past week, according to state Health Department data.

But don’t expect the lockdowns or other drastic measures from the early days of the pandemic to return since neither Gov. Murphy’s administration nor the Biden administration has issued any recent policy changes.

And with the national health emergency lifted in May and the widespread availability of vaccines and boosters, nursing home operators are now the ones deciding how to manage the cases as they have been rising over the last month, said Andrew Aronson, president of the Health Care Association of New Jersey, lobbying group for the long-term care industry.

For the first year of the pandemic, state and federal health officials halted indoor visits, frustrating families who said their loved ones slipped into a depression in the isolation.

“The good news is we are better equipped now to prevent and manage COVID-19 than ever before, thanks to things like vaccines and treatments that exist,” Aronson said.

There are 158 active nursing home outbreaks — more than last week — affecting 1,327 residents and 534 employees, according to state data updated on Wednesday. There are 615 nursing homes and assisted living facilities in the state, Aronson said.

The uptick in COVID-19 in nursing homes is no surprise, with hospitalizations across the country rising by nearly 19% in the last week to 15,067, including 294 in New Jersey, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Authorities say visitors and employees have been the source of the spread of the disease in long-term care facilities since the coronavirus was first detected in New Jersey in early March 2020.

Since then, 10,233 long-term care residents and employees have died from COVID-19, including 15 confirmed in the last week, according to health department data.

At least 200 of those fatalities occurred in the three state-run veterans homes — nursing homes in Edison, Paramus and Vineland for veterans and their spouses.

Amidst the recent outbreak, Vineland administrators closed a wing inside the Veterans Memorial Home at Vineland, said Lt. Col. Agneta E. Murnan, spokeswoman for the state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs. Seven residents and four employees at Vineland have tested positive for COVID-19, Murnan said.

Nancy Kearney, a spokeswoman for the state Health Department, said nursing homes must employ an infection control professional to manage any outbreaks and implement other “best practices to ensure their residents and staff are safe.”

Part of those practices required by the state and federal governments include informing residents and their representatives when someone on site has tested positive, according to a directive from former Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli.

Aronson said operators provide regular training on infection control practices as well as encouragement to getting boosters shots. “Many facilties have had (vaccine) drives for the flu and covid,” he said. “A lot of work has been done to encourage people to get vaccinated and to make it easy as possible.”

“The last time we saw a rise in cases, people were concerned there would be a rise in mortality rates and there wasn’t. Let’s hope this is the same thing — just a periodic spike in cases that goes down as quickly as it went up,” he said.

Long-Term Care Ombudsman Laurie Brewer said said so far, “it seems like facilities and the residents who live there are taking this recent outbreak in stride.”

We are seeing more masks and some facilities have resumed temperature testing. However, we are not getting widespread reports that visitation or activities are being curtailed,” Brewer said. “This is to be expected, however, because the state and federal guidelines do not allow the type of lockdowns we saw 2 or 3 years ago.”

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Susan K. Livio may be reached at Follow her on Twitter @SusanKLivio.

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