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More families allege ‘gross negligence’ led to COVID deaths at N.J. veterans’ homes

The Paramus Veterans Memorial Home in Paramus. (Scott Faytok | For NJ Advance Media/TNS)

Nearly six months after New Jersey agreed to pay $52.9 million to the loved ones of 119 residents who died in two of the state-operated veterans’ homes during the pandemic, an additional 69 families say they will be filing similar charges of gross negligence and incompetence by administrators.

The numbers suggest that the death toll at the facilities in Menlo Park and Paramus could be far higher than the state has ever acknowledged.

Attorney Paul M. da Costa of Roseland, who represented many of those involved in the initial settlement, confirmed that tort claims notices have been filed on behalf of dozens more. Of the 69 new cases, he represents 53 of those families, all of whom lost relatives to COVID-19 in the veterans’ homes.

He would not comment on whether there have been ongoing negotiations with New Jersey regarding the additional claims, which came in the wake of the December 2021 settlement, but said they would welcome the state resolving those claims in a similar fashion, as long as any settlement “reflected what we determined was a fair measure of justice.”

A spokeswoman for Gov. Phil Murphy declined comment, citing the pending litigation.

Meanwhile, da Costa said the new cases indicated that the number of COVID deaths at the veterans’ homes — which provide nursing care for aged veterans and their spouses — were much higher than the state has reported.

“We think it’s 240 individuals,” he said.

According to the latest figures posted by New Jersey, the state counts 157 COVID-related deaths at the veterans’ homes at Menlo Park and Paramus. Between the number of cases already settled and those now being filed, suggests at least 188 died early in the pandemic.

The veterans’ homes reported some of the highest COVID-related death tolls in the nation and remain under state and federal investigation.

The U.S. Department of Justice’s investigation — begun under the Trump administration and continued by the Biden administration — is looking at possible violations of the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act.

Specifically, the Justice Department raised questions over whether the number of deaths in the veterans’ homes had been understated, and whether the state should not have ordered nursing homes to accept residents who had been treated for COVID-19 in a hospital.

The state Attorney General’s Office also is investigating how New Jersey’s long-term care facilities — which include the veterans’ homes — responded to the pandemic.

Last month, Adjutant General Lisa Hou also revealed during questioning by members of the state Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee in Trenton that an additional probe was underway by the State Commission of Investigation.

Hou said she did not know when the investigations would be completed.

During her testimony, Hou acknowledged that more lawsuits had been anticipated.

The veterans’ homes were hard-hit by the deadly virus. As COVID cases swept through the buildings, the state belatedly sought emergency assistance from the Veterans Administration and the National Guard, some believe.

But early on, it was disclosed that frontline workers were discouraged and even chastised for frightening residents by wearing masks. Residents who had tested positive with the deadly virus were not properly segregated from uninfected people and were permitted to mingle in common areas, according to lawsuits and residents’ accounts.

Administrators of the facilities were accused as well of failing to institute proper infection prevention measures as the virus began running rampant — despite clear evidence of just how quickly COVID was spreading.

As the severity of outbreaks at the veterans’ homes became evident, then-Brigadier General Jemal J. Beale, who served as the adjutant general overseeing the New Jersey Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, was ultimately forced to step down as part of a major leadership shakeup. The administration subsequently appointed Hou as adjutant general and Commissioner of the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs.

In the earlier cases brought by attorneys of families leading to the December settlement, it had been alleged that those in charge waited far too long before isolating confirmed or suspected COVID-19 residents.

Those lawsuits also alleged that that staff members who had tested positive for the virus, or those who had been exposed, were nevertheless still permitted to continue to work, as the veterans facilities struggled with severe shortages of medical staff and nurse aides. And they accused the state of failing to conduct timely tests of staff and residents.

The out-of-court resolution was expected to pay families, on average, about $445,000, based on arbitration proceedings.

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