Employees of a New Jersey nursing home where police said 17 bodies were found piled inside a small morgue said conditions at the facility were vile well before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
The former workers at the Andover Subacute and Rehabilitation Center didn't want to be identified, but said that practices and regulations at the Sussex County facility were not up to regulations when they were employed there. They both left their jobs recently, in fear for their own safety after the epidemic had begun taking its toll on the center.
"There would be urine and fecal matter on the floor, in the hallway, in the bedroom, like it was just gross ... I have seen bedbugs in patient beds and, you know, we have reported this a couple of times and nothing is being done about it. Nothing. They don't care about the patients," said one former employee. "And then with the virus happening...things just got 10 times worse because there's nobody there to help these residents, because of the staff being so scared of working there."
That employee said Andover would ask staff to come in to work even if they had been symptomatic for COVID-19. Another worker said employees were not provided any of the proper PPE when working while more and residents were getting sick.
"I would wear a mask because I would bring a mask from home. They wouldn't give me a mask," they said, describing how one person, believed to be a supervisor, told them they "shouldn't have a mask on" and that the facility didn't have any to give out.
One of the employees said they contracted COVID-19 at Andover.
The center had a rating of "much below average" for its health and overall categories before the crisis, a Health Department report obtained by the I-Team showed. It had been issued dozens of citations over the past few years — with five coming during the most recent inspection on March 1. The Health Department report showed a lack of infection control and supplies.
Andover had also been issued two federal fines over the past three years, totaling more than $20,000.
State health officials have ordered consultants brought in and promised more inspections, but the former workers claim the facility often knows about and has time to prepare for those inspections.
In a statement from the facility's management, Andover Subacute and Rehabilitation II said they "remain confident that such review will confirm that the facility has been addressing the unprecedented challenges from this pandemic appropriately. Our top priority is the health and safety of our residents, and we continue to be focused on proving the highest care possible during this unprecedented emergency."
Last week, an anonymous tip led police to discovering more than a dozen bodies piled in a room. The bodies had been moved there after being stored in a shed, the New York Times first reported.
Rep. Josh Gottheimer later confirmed to NBC New York that prior to the disturbing discovery, he had received a call from one of the nursing home's administrators, also infected with COVID-19, that more body bags were needed. The congressman said 68 people have died inside the senior facility, 26 of whom had tested positive for the virus and two were staff members.
Local officials say the nursing home claimed the infected residents were being housed on separate floors or wings to stop the spread. The facility previously released a statement disputing the body count had ever reached 17, saying it had never been more than 15.
"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," the statement read.
Gottheimer said that he's working with the state health department, FEMA and the governor to see if they can get more support because nursing homes across the state have been hit hard by coronavirus.
"Every single day the number keeps going up. I'm hearing from so many local residents and people who have families there, who are scared, for an update. They're worried about their loved ones, so we're trying to provide information to work with the facility but it's been very difficult," Gottheimer said.
Gov. Phil Murphy addressed the incident in an April 16 news conference.
"I am also outraged that bodies of the dead were allowed to pile up in a makeshift morgue at the facility," he said, adding "we can and must do better."
Murphy said he had asked the attorney general's office to investigate the incident and other care homes with an unusually high death rate.
Nearly every nursing home in the state has reported at least one case of the coronavirus at their facility, with 90% of New Jersey's 375 centers with a confirmed case.
In Elizabeth, New Jersey, three long-term care facilities on Tuesday reported a combined total of 65 deaths, according to the city health official. One of the homes there appeared to have a problem with under-reporting (or a lack of reporting) the number of cases coming from there, potentially making the situation worse.
Family members of those at who died at Elizabeth Nursing and Rehabilitation Center are expected to rally Thursday and demand answers from the staff and state.
The federal government is also under pressure to track the deaths at these care facilities due to the staggering death rates.
Many individual states have added to the lack of transparency by releasing only totals of infections and deaths and not details about specific outbreaks. Foremost among them is the nation’s leader, New York, where nursing home deaths have accounted for about 20% of the state’s entire death total — but has so far refused to detail specific outbreaks, citing privacy concerns.
As of Tuesday night, there were over 4,700 deaths in New Jersey from COVID-19.