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National guard ‘stands ready’ to help NJ nursing homes but state says it needs more time to make it work

Friday, March 20, 2020 - New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, right, holds press update at Bergen Community College, Moses Center, after the opening of New Jersey's First COVID-19 Community-Based Testing Site at the college in the state's hardest hit county with the coronavirus. At left is State Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli. Both discussed Monday how they hope to bring in members of the National Guard at nursing homes. (Michael Mancuso | NJ Advance Media/TNS)

State Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli said last Monday the Murphy Administration has been working since the weekend to arrange for the National Guard to assist nursing homes overwhelmed by the coronavirus and hopes to reach an agreement later in the week.

Persichilli said last week for the first time the state would seek help from the National Guard — a suggestion urged by a prominent geriatric specialist, as well as the AARP and the Health Care Coalition of New Jersey, a lobbying organization for nursing homes since last month.

The commissioner, a nurse and former hospital CEO, said she envisioned assigned guard members to help with site testing, janitorial services, cooking and serving meals, and performing administrative or logistical tasks.

“We’ve been on the phone and working with the General and his team all weekend and throughout today. So we hope to have something more positive in the next several days,” Persichilli said during the daily briefing in Trenton. “They’ve been more than wanting to help out. It’s just to make sure that we put them in the right spots.”

Staffing shortages, an issue in many nursing homes, are especially a problem now because so many employees are infected. Jonathan Dolan, the association’s president and CEO, estimates one-third of frontline nursing home employees have been sidelined with the illness.

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“Many (nursing homes are) getting some relief now with employees returning to work but most are still struggling and not where they want to be on staffing for the best quality of care,” Dolan said.

“The men and women of the New Jersey National Guard stand ready to continue supporting our neighbors to contain the spread of COVID-19,” Lt. Col. Barbara Brown, spokeswoman for the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, wrote in an email to NJ Advance Media.

“To date, 196 Army and Air Guard members have been deployed to state-operated veterans homes in Paramus and Menlo Park,” Brown’s email said. “We stand ready and are actively working with state partners to expand our mission as needed.”

The state Health Department says 4,010 of the roughly 67,000 residents of nursing homes, assisted living centers and other long-term care facilities have died, based on confirmed test results and suspected cases of COVID-19.

Of the 670 long-term care facilities in the state, 508 have reported at least one COVID-19 case, Persichilli said.

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, sent two open letters to Gov. Phil Murphy, on April 17 and May 1, urging the use of the national guard.

“I see meal trays left at the bedside, out of reach and getting cold. I see meals left in front of residents who cannot hold a fork. Having non-medical guard in the nursing homes is critical and can save lives,” Barile said on Monday. “Human engagement will also save lives. Frail elders with cognitive impairment decline rapidly when left alone in a room. Time is running out.”

Murphy mentioned during the briefing he also is talking to the U.S. Veterans Administration about deploying some of its staff to assist in nursing homes.

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© 2020 NJ Advance Media Group