Gov. Phil Murphy defended his administration’s virus response in nursing homes, noting little was known about the virus early in the pandemic. (Daniella Heminghaus for New Jersey Monitor)
The Sussex County Board of Commissioners could be forced into a legal battle with the state over information on COVID-19 deaths in the state’s long-term care centers, but only if voters decide that’s a good idea.
The lone county referendum on the ballot in Sussex this year would, if approved, require the commissioners to “consider every legal action necessary” to force the disclosure of public documents and information related to COVID-19 deaths in Sussex long-term care facilities.
Voters in all 24 Sussex towns will be presented with the ballot question.
Dawn Fantasia, director of the Sussex County Commissioner board, told the New Jersey Monitor the county filed a public records request in March 2020 for a series of documents regarding deaths at the Andover Subacute and Rehabilitation Center II.
“We were held at bay,” Fantasia said. “The last communication we did receive from the state was asking for additional time through August of 2020, and here we sit at the end of October of 2021.”
The administration has faced fire from a bevy of Republicans, good government advocates, and media outlets over relaxed response times to requests under the Open Public Records Act made during the pandemic.
Thousands of New Jersey’s long-term care residents died during the pandemic, including 134 residents and staff at Sussex County facilities. As of Monday, the statewide death toll for long-term care residents was 8,607.
Sussex County is home to Andover Subacute, the facility that drew attention for storing 17 bodies in a makeshift morgue — it had capacity for fewer than a quarter of that number — in the earliest months of the pandemic.
The long-term care deaths have been a focal point for Republicans on the campaign trail and frequently emerge in their messaging. Most often, they highlight a Murphy executive order issued early in the pandemic that required long-term care centers readmit and segregate residents who tested positive for the virus.
At a debate last month, Murphy defended his administration’s virus response in nursing homes, noting little was known about the virus early in the pandemic, when the bulk of the deaths occurred.
He said the executive order, issued in April 2020, also required facilities inform the state Department of Health if they were unable to properly separate returning residents.
“We were crystal clear,” the governor said at the time. “These were residents returning to their home, and so we said, ‘You must separate them, and you must separate the staff.’”
Murphy’s campaign declined to comment on the Sussex referendum Monday.
The referendum would also green light the Commissioner Board to conduct an “independent, public, bipartisan” investigation into the state’s oversight of long-term care facilities. All five Sussex County Commissioners are Republican.
“The whole purpose is to make sure something like this never happens again,” Fantasia said.
Some lawmakers, like state Sen. Joe Pennacchio (R-Morris), have called for a select committee investigation into the nursing home deaths. Democratic legislative leaders have not acceded to those calls.
A group of Republican legislators in March held their own hearings, inviting individuals from the long-term care industry to testify.
The U.S. Department of Justice last year opened a probe into the state’s handling of the virus in its veterans’ homes. Democratic leaders initially derided that investigation, launched under President Donald Trump, as politically motivated, but the probe has continued under President Biden and even after the Justice Department shuttered similar inquiries in New York, Pennsylvania, and Michigan.
“That’s great, however, that is not a wide enough net that hits our facilities and what happened there,” Fantasia said.
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