KIYC: Investigation uncovers COVID-19 safety violations at Menlo Park veterans home

A Kane In Your Corner investigation has uncovered new details about apparent safety violations at a state-run veterans home in Edison, site of one of New Jersey's largest COVID-19 outbreaks. And irregularities on death certificates could support concerns that long-term care facilities may be under-reporting COVID-19 deaths, even though those deaths already account for more than half of the state's total.
Sandy Delley still remembers the last message she delivered to her father, Richard. "I had the nurse tell him in his ear that I knew he was there, that I couldn’t visit, to hang in there," she recalls. "But later that night, at about 4-5 a.m., he passed."
Richard Dilley died on April 8, after contracting COVID-19 at the New Jersey Veterans Memorial Home at Menlo Park. Fifty-eight veterans at the state-run facility and one staff member have now died of the virus. More than 250 residents and staff have been infected.
Delley says she first suspected there was a problem during a Skype visit with her father in late March. Nursing homes had already been closed to visitors for weeks due to the pandemic but Delley says neither staff members nor her father were wearing masks. Two workers, who asked Kane In Your Corner not to reveal their identities, say at the time, they were under orders not to by management.
"Don’t wear masks around the patients, you’re going to make them uncomfortable," one recalls. "That was what was told to us.”
The workers are furious that just days later, the facility began trying to improve its image by posting social media videos staff dancing in the hallways, and patients thanking them for their care. "I see these people dancing up and down the aisles singing songs," one worker says. "All the deaths, in my opinion, were unnecessary. Someone needs to tell the story of what’s happening down there."
Workers say that includes a failure to properly clean rooms after COVID-19 patients moved out. "You needed to sterilize those rooms," one says. "You can’t mop a room and say that was cleaned. That’s what was happening."
Kane In Your Corner heard the same last week from Julie Diaz, daughter of Army and Air Force veteran Isabella Kovacs, who died at the Menlo Park home last month. "She said all they did was mop the floor," Diaz said. "They didn’t sanitize any of the surfaces in the bathroom."
Kryn Westhoven, spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Military and Veterans Affairs (DMAVA) declined to answer Kane In Your Corner's questions about when the facility corrected the cleaning deficiencies or why it ordered staff not to wear masks weeks into a pandemic, but said currently, "staff members are directed to wear PPE in accordance with CDC guidelines" and "the housekeeping staff at the Menlo Park Veterans Memorial Home cleans every room according to industry and infectious control recommendations."
This week, a New Jersey State Senate committee announced it will hold hearings into the 5,168 COVID-19 deaths at long-term care facilities. That's more than half the state's total, which is approaching 10,000.
"One percent of the population and yet they’ve created 50-55% of the COVID deaths," says state Sen. Joe Pennacchio (R- Montville). "Questions need to be asked and they need to be answered."
As high as the mortality figures are, some question whether all deaths are being counted. Take Richard Dilley. He died after he was taken to the hospital and that's the only facility listed on his death certificate, signed by a doctor affiliated with the veterans home. The veterans home is nowhere to be found. The cause of death isn't even listed as Covid-19, simply “pneumonia”.
Pennacchio has long claimed that nursing home residents who die of COVID-19 after being hospitalized are being recorded as hospital deaths, not nursing home deaths, as state policy requires. He recently wrote a letter to the New Jersey Department of Health (DOH) requesting proof the policy was being followed. The Murphy administration says it should be, but offers little assurance it actually is.
Dr. Ed Lifschitz of DOH says simply that his agency has told long-term care facilities that "If they have a resident who dies in the hospital, they're supposed to count that as having died in the facility," DMAVA says it has the same policy at veterans homes, but notes that since it operates those homes directly, it has a greater ability to ensure compliance.
Sandy Delley hopes that’s true; she says her father would want it that way. "It’s like being in a war," she says. "You want to be listed as one of the people who died in the war.”