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Families Say They Received Form Letters From N.J. Nursing Home As Loved Ones Died

After an anonymous tip to police, 17 people were found dead at the Andover Subacute and Rehabilitation Center. Here, a New Jersey Police vehicle parks at the facility's entrance on Thursday.
After an anonymous tip to police, 17 people were found dead at the Andover Subacute and Rehabilitation Center. Here, a New Jersey Police vehicle parks at the facility's entrance on Thursday.

A large nursing facility in New Jersey is emerging as a symbol of how nursing homes are being overwhelmed by COVID-19, after an anonymous tip led to the discovery of 17 dead people at the Andover Subacute and Rehabilitation Center I and II long-term care facility.

Families who lost loved ones say they received form letters telling them their loved ones were sick – and in at least one case, the letter arrived after the patient died.

The scope of the tragic situation was only revealed after the Andover Township Police Department received an anonymous tip early this week, reporting that a body had been stored in a shed.

"When the police arrived, the corpse had been removed from the shed, but they discovered 17 bodies piled inside the nursing home in a small morgue intended to hold no more than four people," The New York Times reports.

"I am heartbroken by the tragic news that several individuals have lost their lives" in the outbreak at the nursing home, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said Thursday, adding that he is praying for employees and patients who are affected.

"I am also outraged that bodies of the dead were allowed to pile up in a makeshift morgue at the facility," Murphy added.

Patients in New Jersey's long-term care facilities "deserve to be cared for with respect, compassion and dignity," the governor said.

"We can and must do better," Murphy said, adding that he has asked Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal both to look into the case, and to review recent records from any other nursing facilities that have seen a spike in deaths during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Police say the staff were struggling to cope with the rapid rate of deaths in the home. More than a dozen bodies were immediately removed from the care facility on Monday, and officials arranged for a refrigerated truck to be brought to the nursing facility to be used as an overflow morgue.

More than 100 patients and staff members have tested positive for the coronavirus at the two Subacute buildings that sit across the street from each other in Andover, about 55 miles northwest of New York City.

The flood of COVID-19 cases drove the facility to send out form letters to residents' families last week, informing them that their loved one had tested positive for the coronavirus – and warning them that due to the enormous number of cases in northern New Jersey, there was little chance of getting specialized care in any local hospitals.

The form letter, which relatives shared with The New Jersey Herald, left blank spaces for patients' names.

The letter stated:
"Due to the limitations of the healthcare system in place and considering that community-based hospitals in North Jersey hospitals are overwhelmed, there is very minimal chance of getting any more care in the hospital. Therefore, we are treating our residents in a contained unit in our facility and keeping them in a home setting."
Cynthia Gunderman tells the Herald that her family received their letter, which was dated April 6, on April 10; the next day, her father-in-law died of COVID-19.

In another case, Beth Gangi tells the newspaper that earlier this month, her family was told her uncle was being moved to a hospital due to a fever. He was then moved back to Subacute – but the facility called on April 6 to say he had died. Gangi says the family got the letter about his COVID-19 status four days later.

Together, the two nursing home buildings – Subacute I and Subacute II — have 702 beds, according to their Medicare profile pages, with Subacute II being the larger of the two with 543 beds. The building also has only a one-star rating on Medicare.gov – or "much below average" – with deficiencies found in health inspections and staff assessments.

Sussex County has confirmed more than 550 coronavirus cases, the county's health division reports. New Jersey has confirmed more than 70,000 cases, according to a COVID-19 dashboard created by Johns Hopkins University's Whiting School of Engineering.
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.