There’s a third ongoing COVID investigation of NJ veterans’ homes
TRENTON – There are three ongoing investigations, not two, into the handling of the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic in New Jersey’s state-run veterans’ homes, where at least 169 residents and three staff members died from the virus.
Brig. Gen. Lisa Hou, the adjutant general and commissioner of the state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, told lawmakers at a Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee hearing Tuesday that the State Commission of Investigation is looking into what happened at the veterans’ homes two years ago.
Investigations by the U.S. Department of Justice and the state Office of the Attorney General had been previously acknowledged, but lawmakers seemed surprised to learn of the SCI inquiry.
“With three current investigations going on, I think we’re going to get, hopefully get the answers that we’re looking for,” Hou said.
Sen. Michael Testa, R-Cumberland, said residents deserve answers about the handling of the pandemic. He asked Hou if Gov. Phil Murphy should appoint a special investigator, as Massachusetts has done. She said she isn’t sure she can answer that but noted the three investigations.
“More than 200 of our residents died as a result of what I believe to be gross negligence and incompetence,” Testa said. “Without a doubt, we know that administrators were responsible for several inexplicable decisions which resulted in both the virus spreading completely unchecked and lives unfortunately lost.”
The Justice Department notified the state in October 2020 that it was investigating the adequacy of the care provided at the veterans’ homes in Paramus and Menlo Park. The state attorney general’s office opened its investigation in the same month.
Hou, who was selected to lead DMVA in October 2020, said none of the investigations are completed and that she doesn’t know when they will be. She said they have been constantly requesting information, which the DMVA is supplying.
Hou said the state received some interim recommendations from the Justice Department that have been implemented. The December precaution letter was related to personal protective equipment, cleaning and disinfecting of high frequency touched surfaces, proper surveillance and contract tracing and effective cohorting of residents and staff.
In December, the state reached a $53 million, out-of-court settlement with 119 families of residents who died in the Menlo Park and Paramus homes. Hou told lawmakers there has been talk that more lawsuits may be filed but that none are currently pending.
“I personally am not aware of any specific ones, but I do believe we do anticipate some,” Hou said.