Request for 25 body bags reveals deadly outbreak at New Jersey nursing home; Congressman says 68 dead

ANDOVER, N.J. -- A request for 25 body bags led police to find more than a dozen corpses at a New Jersey nursing home.

The state is opening an investigation into Andover Rehabilitation in Sussex County after a number of bodies were removed this week amid the coronavirus pandemic. The outbreak at this nursing home may be the deadliest in New Jersey.

According to the police, following the request for body bags Monday, investigators found 17 bodies in the facility's holding area.

Congressman Josh Gottheimer, whose district includes Andover, said a total of 68 people from the facility have died and another 76 residents who have tested positive. This includes 40 staff members who tested positive and two nurses who have died.

"When they called Saturday, they were desperate for body bags and what can we do to help," Gottheimer said on camera. "Overall, we need to figure out what went on here. Did they take all the steps necessary upfront for PPE? Did they segregate those who are positive?"

Gottheimer said the nursing home is the largest in the state with over 500 beds and the focus right is saving lives.

"How do we help the residents there and how do we keep them safe? How do they get the care they need immediately, how do we save as many lives as possible? How do we stop the spread of the virus and how do we get PPE that staffing needs? It's triage mode to help them," he said.

Coronavirus is hitting New Jersey's nursing homes hard. Half of the state's 375 facilities have at least one positive case of the virus, Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli has said last week.

Elizabeth Nursing and Rehab Center in Elizabeth has been shut down 26 people died here in recent weeks, at least 12 confirmed to be from COVID 19.

"We have gone out to some of the nursing homes to help correct what are really daunting situations where staff has called in sick or have abandoned the nursing home. and they needed some oversight and extra help," Persichilli said.

The state says they're not allowing any more admissions to any of these homes that are under investigation.

More than 3,600 deaths nationwide have been linked to coronavirus outbreaks in nursing homes and long-term care facilities, an alarming rise in just the past two weeks, according to the latest count by The Associated Press.

The numbers are rising fast in New Jersey where more than 5,200 residents of these facilities have tested positive. That accounts for about ten percent of the state's total long-term care population.

Experts say nursing home deaths may keep climbing because of chronic staffing shortages that have been made worse by the coronavirus crisis, a shortage of protective supplies and a continued lack of available testing.

And the deaths have skyrocketed despite steps taken by the federal government in mid-March to bar visitors, cease all group activities, and require that every worker be screened for fever or respiratory symptoms at every shift.

But an AP report earlier this month found that infections were continuing to find their way into nursing homes because such screenings didn't catch people who were infected but asymptomatic. Several large outbreaks were blamed on such spreaders, including infected health workers who worked at several different nursing home facilities.

Dr. Deborah Birx, who leads the White House coronavirus response, suggested this past week that as more COVID-19 tests become available, nursing homes should be a top priority.

"We need to really ensure that nursing homes have sentinel surveillance. And what do I mean by that? That we're actively testing in nursing homes, both the residents and the workers, at all times," Birx said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2020 WTVD-TV. All Rights Reserved.