New Jersey Veterans Homes Likely Failed to Acknowledge Covid-19 as Cause in Dozens of Deaths, Officials Say
A state-run nursing home for veterans in New Jersey failed to attribute nearly 40% of its likely Covid-19 deaths to the virus, according to the state’s own Department of Health.
The Menlo Park Veterans Memorial Home, in Edison, N.J., attributed 62 deaths to the new coronavirus on the website of the state’s veterans’ affairs agency. But a Department of Health spokeswoman, Nancy Kearney, said late Wednesday that an additional 39 people probably died from the virus at the facility during a wave of infections there.
Another state-run veterans home, in Paramus, N.J., also likely had more Covid-19 deaths than the total it attributed to the virus, Ms. Kearney said. The likely undercount at the two facilities, among the deadliest in the state for the virus, was first reported by The Wall Street Journal.
The findings show how publicly reported nursing home mortality figures can fail to reflect the true toll the pandemic has taken on the facilities, which are home to some of the most virus-vulnerable people in the country.
A spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, Kryn Westhoven, in a statement released Wednesday, said his agency “mourns each and every veteran that passes away in our Memorial homes…. Much like other long-term care facilities across the state and country, Covid-19 created unprecedented circumstances and demands within our veterans memorial homes. During this time, all deaths were reported to the Department of Health.”
The two state-run nursing homes have faced a barrage of criticism from families of deceased residents. The Paramus facility, which initially reported more deaths, has in particular come under fire.
In the early days of the pandemic, testing wasn’t widely available to residents at many facilities. A large number of deaths at Menlo in April, the peak of that facility’s outbreak, were attributed to other causes, such as pneumonia, even as the death toll soared above usual levels.
The Paramus facility reported 81 deaths linked to Covid-19. The health department’s Ms. Kearney said an additional eight patients at that facility probably died from the virus.
The state counted as probable deaths those that weren’t clearly explained by another cause where patients had Covid-19 symptoms, or autopsies found signs of Covid-19, Ms. Kearney said in an email, as well as some other types of deaths.
Veterans agency records viewed by the Journal show nearly 100 people died at the Menlo facility in April alone. That’s about as many as the facility typically loses in a year, historical records show.
Mr. Westhoven also said in an earlier interview that the department only counted deaths when a death certificate expressly listed Covid-19 as the cause. That accounting missed some cases where residents tested positive but still didn’t have Covid-19 listed on their death certificates.
William Hefele, a Navy veteran and Menlo resident, was hospitalized in early April with symptoms of pneumonia. His daughter, Susan Hondo, said she got a call from hospital staff informing her that he had tested positive for Covid-19.
He turned 90 years old in his hospital bed and battled with the virus for days before dying on April 18, Ms. Hondo said in an interview.
When she received his death certificate, which was certified by a doctor working for Menlo, Covid-19 wasn’t listed as a cause, she said.
Rather, she said, the certificate listed several causes that are linked to the virus: pneumonia, heart disease and sepsis, a kind of infection that causes fevers.
The veterans agency didn’t respond to questions about individual cases.
Write to Christopher Weaver at [email protected]
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