The coronavirus has preyed on residents of nursing homes in New Jersey with lethal force, claiming more than 4,850 lives. Deaths at long-term care facilities now account for half of the state’s Covid-19 fatalities, well over the national rate.
As of Sunday, 15 nursing homes had reported 30 or more deaths apiece, including four with more than 50 deaths, state records show.
But nowhere has the devastation been starker than at the New Jersey Veterans Home at Paramus, a state-run home for former members of the U.S. military.
The home is built on the idea that those who served in the military are entitled to dignified care in their twilight years.
Instead, in what some people have called a betrayal of this fundamental pact, the Paramus home is the site of one of the biggest coronavirus outbreaks in the country.
The virus has swept through the facility, which in late March had 314 residents, infecting 60 percent of its patients. As of Sunday, 72 deaths there had been linked to the virus.
The list of the dead is almost certain to grow: Of the remaining 211 veterans and their spouses, 120 had either tested positive for the virus or were awaiting results. About one in five staff members has contracted the virus, and one employee has died.
“The whole place is sick now,” said Mitchell Haber, whose 91-year-old father, Arnold, an Army veteran, died last month at the home, which is about 12 miles northwest of New York City.
“What they should really do is raze it and put a park there,’’ he said. “It’s like a mass shooting.”
The official who oversaw both homes for the state’s Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, Mark Piterski, resigned last month after announcing that he intended to run for Congress.
He and Gov. Philip D. Murphy have said that he was not asked to step down. Mr. Piterski, a retired Army brigadier general, said he had struggled to maintain staffing levels at the outset of the outbreak, when 100 employees a day were calling out sick. He said he had asked for help repeatedly, telling officials, “I need nurses — yesterday.”
What has happened in Paramus is not just a failure by state regulators. The home also gets funding from the federal Department of Veterans Affairs, making it subject to additional regulatory oversight.
Two congressmen and the New Jersey commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars are demanding a federal inquiry.
Christina Noel, a V.A. spokeswoman, said in a statement that the agency conducted annual inspections of state-run homes to ensure that they met its standards of care.
“If a state-run home doesn’t meet these standards, then the department will not pay for veterans to receive care there,” Ms. Noel said.
Mr. Murphy has hired a team to evaluate what went wrong at Paramus and other long-term care centers in New Jersey, most of which are privately owned.
And the state’s attorney general, Gurbir S. Grewal, has opened an investigation into nursing homes with high fatality rates. The inquiry could lead to criminal charges.
“For many of these facilities, this was the equivalent of a 500-year flood,” Mr. Grewal said of the pandemic at a recent news briefing. “But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t examine how folks responded when those floodwaters started rising.
“And it also doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t examine how they operated before that flood,” he added. “If they cut corners. If they, or anyone, for that matter, ignored red flags or warnings. If they lied to regulators or others. If they put profits over patients.”
The Paramus home is in Bergen County, the area of New Jersey that the virus hit first and hardest. The facility’s problems are part of a nationwide crisis at nursing homes, which, according to an analysis by The New York Times, are linked to at least 25,600 deaths, more than a third of the country’s virus-related fatalities.
But the virus’s path of destruction through veterans’ homes has exposed a painful vulnerability with national implications. On Tuesday, amid continuing outrage over a Massachusetts home for veterans where at least 70 deaths have been linked to the virus, a group of United States senators called for an inquiry into state-run facilities.
Kryn Westhoven, a spokesman for New Jersey’s veterans affairs department, said the homes’ proximity to virus hot spots and the frailty of their residents had contributed to the spread.
“The population is vulnerable,” Mr. Westhoven said. “Older. Dealing with underlying health conditions.”
But families of veterans who either died at the Paramus home or are residents there have questioned how things went so wrong, so quickly and why they were not told earlier about the severity of the problem.
“They really kind of held the truth from everyone,” said Stephen Mastropietro, whose 91-year-old father, Thomas, died at the home last month after testing positive for the virus. He had moved there in February.
Mr. Mastropietro said he was haunted by his decision not to move his father, who had dementia, out of the facility in late March.
“They said that they had a case, but in another part of the hospital,” he said. “Then 20-something people died that week.”
Cynthia Petersen’s 91-year-old father, Harold, an Army sergeant during the Korean War, is at the Paramus home, where he is recovering after contracting the virus.
She said she was dumbfounded to get a call recently that focused not on his health, but on a billing dispute over her request for documentation related to doctors’ visits last year.
“You have 230 patients, most of whom are sick, and you think you have time to spend on the phone with me?” she said.
“I asked them: ‘How did this get so out of control?’”
Many relatives described an atmosphere that was friendly and caring before the pandemic. The director shared his cellphone number, visitors gave nicknames to employees and bingo games were sacrosanct.
The home earned average ratings last year on a federal scorecard, with the exception of a below-average mark for food storage.
Waiting lists were common at the Paramus home, which opened in 1986 to provide additional housing for an aging World War II population. One of three military nursing homes run by the state, it admits only those who have been honorably discharged, their spouses and so-called Gold Star parents whose children were killed during active military duty.
In late March, as the virus hit and employees began to get sick, relatives who had been barred from visiting said the telephones at nursing stations rang off the hook.
New Jersey did not require nursing home staff members to wear masks until March 30, and relatives said their loved ones were routinely brought to sit in common areas at the start of the outbreak. By April 9, there had been 10 virus-linked deaths.
Little or no information about the virus was shared, relatives said, until news of the first wave of deaths prompted Mr. Murphy to dispatch 40 Army National Guard medics to the home.
For Thomas Mastropietro, who sustained nerve damage in his arm while serving in the Army during the Korean War, death was accompanied by a final indignity.
On April 11, the day Mr. Mastropietro died, his son was told by an aide that his father had rebounded. His fever was down, his son said he was told, and he even had the strength to walk to the bathroom on his own.
But hours later, another call came: His father had been misidentified days before when he was moved into the home’s Covid ward.
The elder Mr. Mastropietro, his son soon learned, had died, and his body had been taken to the wrong funeral home. A worker there noticed that his wrist bracelets had two different names.
“Somehow it happened,” he said, “but it really shouldn’t have.”
Representative Bill Pascrell Jr., a Democrat who represents parts of northern New Jersey, has a brother-in-law who is a resident at the Paramus home and has tested positive for the virus. Mr. Pascrell called the virus’s ability to spread through the facility unchecked a “catastrophic failure.”
“This is not only a tragedy,” he said. “This is an urgent message to all of us. These veterans fought on the field for this country.”
Since April, dozens of nurses from the federal Department of Veterans Affairs have been on site to help staff members. A team of doctors from nearby hospitals similarly besieged with virus patients was recently invited to inspect the home and to share what they had learned about infection control.
“If we can save one veteran from what they’ve learned,” said Representative Josh Gottheimer, a Democrat who represents Paramus, “that would be a huge help.”
Dr. Adam Jarrett was among those who toured the home. He said it was “clean and organized.”
“We have consistently called for new heights of collaboration and cooperation of the acute-care organizations,” Dr. Jarrett, the chief medical officer of Holy Name Medical Center in Teaneck, said. “We should have been there to assist sooner.”
Mr. Piterski, who intends to challenge Mr. Gottheimer as an independent, said calls from Mr. Gottheimer and Mr. Pascrell for an inquiry in early April had delayed the arrival of additional nurses and had hurt the remaining workers’ morale.
“They kicked my workers when they were down and when they were pulling double and triple shifts,” Mr. Piterski said. The home, he said, serves a vulnerable population, and 175 residents die there of natural causes every year.
The family of Arnold Haber, who lived at the Paramus home for three years, said that they understood the extreme challenges posed by the virus, especially for people, like Mr. Haber, with underlying health conditions.
But they maintained that what had happened at the facility was not nearly as inevitable as was now being portrayed.
Mr. Haber’s wife of 65 years, Rena, visited daily, knew most staff members by name and always brought a meal cooked at her home, which is a short walk from the facility.
“I always used to tell him, ‘If you want me, Arnie, just open the window and whistle and I’ll hear you in the house,’” Ms. Haber, 87, said.
Mr. Haber served in the Korean War and went on to establish a successful lingerie company. He enjoyed cabbage stuffed with meat and rice, and his main love, his son said, was model trains.
“No,” Ms. Haber said. “That wasn’t his love. I was.”
She added, “He was the most wonderful person you’d ever want to meet.”
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