N.J. will ask National Guard to help nursing homes decimated by the coronavirus

Posted May 02, 2020

State Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli said Saturday she is asking the National Guard to help New Jersey’s nursing homes respond to the coronavirus pandemic, which has claimed the lives of 3,670 people living in longterm care facilities.

Nearly half of all deaths in the state appear to come from nursing homes, based on lab-confirmed and presumed COVID-19 death data.

The decision to seek help from the state or federal branches of the National Guard is an abrupt change from what Gov. Phil Murphy had said as recently as Friday, when he called it an idea under consideration.

A prominent geriatric physician has issued two open letters to Murphy telling him the National Guard could be deployed to deliver food trays and other non-medical duties because there is a “staffing crisis” inside many of 670 state-licensed facilities.

When asked again Saturday during the state’s daily press briefing in Trenton, Persichilli said for the first time that the administration had “put in a request” with the guard once before, but its members had been “diverted to another location.”

Persichilli told NJ Advance Media after the briefing she intended to renew the request, with the state or federal branch of the National Guard, or both.

A spokesperson for the two branches could not immediately be reached for comment.

Murphy already has dispatched the the National Guard to distribute personal protective equipment and food and help assemble field hospitals. Also, 75 medics were sent to the state veterans’ homes in Edison and Paramus as an increasing number of employees are out sick. There have been 63 deaths at the Paramus Veterans Home and 51 at the Menlo Park home, according to the health department.

“We also need guardsmen,” David Barile, medical director of Geriatric and Palliative Services at UPENN Hospital of Princeton and founder of Goals of Care Coalition of New Jersey, which promotes palliative care, wrote in an April 17 letter to the governor last month.

“We need them in our vulnerable nursing homes to help with critical staff shortages so residents can be fed, washed, clothed and safely cared for in their rooms. This intervention will save lives and reduce age-related complications of remaining bedbound. Guardsmen will help to reduce the spread of COVID by keeping residents with dementia from moving room to room.”

“Many are left bedbound for days, likely to result in bedsores and subsequent illnesses such as pneumonia and fractures due to falls," Barile wrote.

Barile said he was pleased with the decision.

“Calling for the National Guard to assist in the care of our most vulnerable is an important step in controlling the spread of COVID in our nursing homes, and will certainly save lives,” he said.

Persichilli said the state is also looking to enlist student nurses to help at nursing homes, which has seen a significant but so far unspecified number of employees sidelined by the virus.

The health department has shared a list of about 1,000 nursing home aides who may be willing to help, she said, but added: “It’s very difficult to get people to do the activities of daily living,” such as the bathing, feeding and toileting responsibilities.

“Not a lot of them are anxious to do the work,” she added.

In all, New Jersey — a state of 9 million residents — has reported at least 123,717 cases of the coronavirus, including 7,742 deaths, in a little more than eight weeks since the outbreak started March 4. Only New York has more cases and deaths among American states.

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