For those in nursing homes ‘we must do better’ next time, legislators say

As we all begin to cautiously emerge from our homes and attempt to return to normalcy – we cannot help but notice those we have lost and face the reality that they are gone. COVID-19 did not just take our loved ones away from us, it took away our ability to comfort them in their last days and it took away many of the things we would normally do to honor their life and process their death.

For those who loved someone in a long-term care facility, this feeling is only amplified. It wasn’t just the week before their loved one was hospitalized with severe COVID-19 symptoms, in some cases it had been months since they last held their loved one’s hand. The death toll in these facilities - among both residents and their direct caregivers – was devastating.

The human impact extends beyond those who lost someone living in a nursing home. Families whose loved ones survived this first wave of COVID-19 are still unable to visit. Their concern and frustration are growing. Efforts to facilitate communication using technology are cumbersome and in many instances have proven ineffective. The residents of nursing homes throughout the country continue to suffer in ways we are still grappling to understand.

At the same time, regulators and facility administrators are still struggling to figure out how to balance their responsibility to protect people entrusted with their care. On March 13th, the CDC issued guidance to nursing homes across the country to restrict all visitors effective immediately. The New Jersey Department of Health reiterated that guidance the same day and in a sudden moment families across our nation were separated from each other. We believe this decision was made to try to protect the most vulnerable among us and we will spend decades analyzing this decision, the timing of it, and the effectiveness of it.

As a state, as a nation, and as a world we will revisit all of the decisions made during the last six months recognizing that we are not out of the woods yet and we all need to work together quickly and cooperatively to prepare for the next wave or the next novel pandemic. We can do better – we must do better.

We credit Gov. Phil Murphy for taking the critical first step to engage independent experts to review New Jersey’s long-term care infrastructure, identify weaknesses and provide specific actions needed to prevent future tragedy. We are committed to working with Governor Murphy, Senate President Steve Sweeney, Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin and our colleagues to review these recommendations.

While the Manatt firm’s report on long-term care facilities in New Jersey brought new considerations to light, many of these assessments are not new. We can only hope that they serve as a wakeup call to the legislature to act. We are also committed to working with our leadership and colleagues to learn from those who were in the trenches, living and working in our nursing homes.

We hope to afford industry leaders and public health experts the opportunity to candidly reflect on the factors that contributed to the demise of so many long-term care residents and share how they believe, knowing all that they now know today, how we could do better. We hope to learn best practices implemented throughout the world and focus the discussion on saving human lives while balancing the importance of maintaining family connections in an incredibly vulnerable segment of our state’s population. Together, we are authoring legislation in collaboration with the Manatt report’s recommendations.

As chair of the Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens and the Assembly Aging and Senior Services committees, we will participate and lead hearings held in our respective chambers to learn from experts and advocates about what measures need to be taken to bolster our long-term care infrastructure.

While this crisis has exacerbated the shortcomings in our infrastructure, it certainly did not create them. We are committed to creating a resilient and stabilized system that is equipped with workplace protections, adequate staffing and the proper protocols to prevent future tragedy.

Sen. Joseph Vitale represents the 19th Legislative District.

Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri-Huttle represents the 37th Legislative District.