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Hammonton center has outsized COVID-19 infections; state can't say why

HAMMONTON — Gina Acevedo knew something was amiss when she hadn’t heard from her mom, a resident at the Hammonton Center for Rehabilitation and Health Care. The two talk every day.

It was Saturday, April 18, and while New Jersey was seeing a wave of rising COVID-19 cases, the situation seemed stable at the 240-bed nursing facility, where just two cases and no fatalities had been reported at the time.

But Acevedo was worried. She called the facility several times and left messages, but it wasn’t until two days later, on April 20, that she was able to speak to her mom, Eleanor Perez. Perez, 74, told her daughter she had been running a fever, feeling off and not eating. And she said patients were no longer allowed to leave their rooms.

Acevedo called the nursing home, trying to get answers. When she finally reached a nurse April 23 and asked why Perez had not been tested for the new coronavirus, despite showing signs of an upper respiratory infection, Acevedo said she was told they were “short-staffed.” The nurse agreed to check on Perez.

By that night, Perez was transferred to AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center with a fever. There, she tested positive for COVID-19 and remains on a ventilator.

The virus has spread rapidly through the Hammonton Center, with 149 positive cases and 12 deaths, according to the state Department of Health’s figures Friday.

The Hammonton Center has South Jersey’s highest level of infection among tested long-term care facilities by far, comparable to some of Bergen and Hudson counties’ most infected institutions, state data show.

A spokesperson for Centers Health Care of the Bronx, New York, which owns the Hammonton Center, attributed the spike in cases to state testing but did not answer questions about why its numbers were so much higher than those of other long-term care facilities in South Jersey.

“The staff have been in full PPE since early March per the guidelines of the New Jersey Department of Health and the CDC, plus screening of staff have been taking place before they enter the facility,” said Vice President of Communications Jeffrey Jacomowitz.

He said staff temperatures are taken and they are asked how they feel and observed.

“If any of that becomes apparent (fever, sniffles, cough), the staffer is turned away and told to go home and quarantine,” Jacomowitz said. “The screening at the door is designed to not bring in COVID-19 from the outside. ”

Nursing homes in general have been at the center of COVID-19 deaths, making up 40% of the deaths statewide.

“I can’t speak to a particular home. I can look it up,” Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli said Friday during Gov. Phil Murphy’s daily media briefing, when asked what caused the infection rate to explode at the Hammonton site.

Later, a spokesperson for the Health Department could not answer questions about why the infection rate climbed so high there.

Persichilli said retesting will be done at the 16 long-term care facilities where staff and residents were recently tested by Cooper University Health System, including the Hammonton Center.

“We are following up the process — it is test and then retest all the negatives so we know exactly the status of the residents and the staff,” Persichilli said. “There is an indication that for long-term care over the long haul there will be constant testing and retesting.”

The size of the outbreak in Hammonton became apparent after Cooper sent workers April 24 to test all of the residents and staff. The results came in this past week, revealing the much higher levels of infection.

“Part of the problem with the infection for COVID is — it just has to do with the nature of nursing homes,” said Patrice Mareschal, an associate professor of public policy at Rutgers University Camden. “You have a lot of people living together in a small area … older adults with underlying chronic medical conditions. They are already more susceptible to it.”

There is also the need for close contact between residents and staff, particularly for nursing assistants who on average care for 12 patients per shift, she said.

“They have to help with activities of daily living — assisting with getting dressed, bathing, toileting and feeding,” Mareschal said. “There’s already a high rate of occupational injury (often from lifting patients), and the average hourly wage is about $13.38 an hour. That’s a little over $22,000 a year.”

In addition, some residents have disabilities like Alzheimer’s disease that make it impossible to understand what they need to do in terms of social distancing and hygiene, Mareschal said.

“The residents (and staff) for all of those reasons are at increased risk (of infection),” she said.

A nurse at the Hammonton Center, who spoke to The Press previously and has asked not to be named, said Thursday things have improved there since the state stepped in to help late last month.

“The state was in, and you could tell they were just scrambling,” she said. “Three days, they just turned that place upside down getting all the COVID in one unit, getting everyone separated, we’ve gotten boxes and cases of PPE in. I think everyone was really happy with it. It was a lot of work. We kept telling them, ‘You know you should have done this weeks ago.’”

An employee at another nursing home in Egg Harbor Township said that even with the proper equipment, there is a lack of knowledge among many working in long-term care facilities on the proper use of PPE.

“We’re not trained to be in a hospital,” said the employee of Egg Harbor Care Center. “These isolation wings at these facilities are overwhelming.”

How many COVID-19 cases do area long term care facilities have?

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Dozens flock to parks, golf courses as Gov. Murphy eases COVID-19 restrictions

As Tina Fabrizio and Susan Hesser finished walking the trails around Estell Manor Park on Saturday morning, they celebrated reaching 5,000 steps.

“I’m smiling behind here,” Hesser said, pointing to the mask covering her nose and mouth. “I’ve been cooped up for 60 days. I needed to get out.”

The Mays Landing women were among several groups of people taking advantage of the county park’s reopening, with the parking lot packed just after 10 a.m. as families and friends pulled bicycles out of car trunks and applied bug spray.

“I think as long as people keep on their masks,” Fabrizio said when asked how she feels about the crowded lot. “Especially with all the rain we’ve had. It’s depressing enough being locked in your home. It’s nice to have a sunny day.”

Dozens of people took advantage of Gov. Phil Murphy’s executive order that allowed counties to reopen their parks starting at dawn Saturday, in addition to reopening state parks and golf courses. He had ordered state and county parks closed April 7 to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 after officials noted numerous instances in which people were gathering and socializing in groups in those spaces.

It’s one of the first restrictions lifted across the state, even as cases of the new coronavirus continue to increase, including in Atlantic County.

County officials reported 36 new cases of the novel coronavirus and four new deaths Saturday, bringing the total number of positive cases to 1,059 with 48 fatalities and 198 residents deemed recovered.

During his daily media briefing Saturday, Murphy noted early reports from police and park officials said people were following social-distancing guidelines at the reopened facilities.

By late afternoon, several state parks had reached half their capacity and were closed to additional arrivals, according to an Associated Press report.

Murphy saw the reopenings as a key test to see whether cases accelerate and people observe social distancing.

Pandemic showcases CRDA's focus on Atlantic City

ATLANTIC CITY — Starting about 6 a.m. and working through the day, a small team of employees and volunteers from Mike B’s Café and Cedar Food Market cooks and prepares hundreds of meals inside the kitchen at the All Wars Memorial Building for senior residents.

“If we hear minimum reports of knucklehead behavior in our parks, and we see the metrics we need to meet being met over the next couple of days and weeks, then we know that you all have taken to heart your responsibility,” he said, adding he would not hesitate to close the parks again if residents’ behavior necessitated it.

But not everyone thought the parks should have been closed in the first place.

Brian Vaughan and his daughter, Delphine, both of Absecon, rode bikes along the park trails Saturday morning, something they said they’ve been doing regularly for years.

“I just don’t think that should have been closed to begin with,” Vaughan said, adding he hasn’t seen too many people along the trail. “It seems like everyone is just getting out and enjoying the day.”

After getting a birdie on the 13th hole at the county-owned Green Tree Golf Course in Egg Harbor Township, Scott Health, of Ocean City, said he “woke up this morning like it was Christmas,” excited to get out and play a round.

The course had 78 people scheduled for tee times, Operations Manager Matt Plunkett said. There were only two open slots left at the end of the day.

“Everybody has been good and understanding,” he said, explaining the governor’s restrictions include limiting groups of golfers to two, among other guidelines. “They just want to play.”

The tee sheet was full at the Brigantine Golf Links, too, Head Professional Gabe DeLiberty said.

“I honestly think it could be raining today and people would be out,” he said.

The course had roughly 70 people on the sheet, DeLiberty said, explaining that due to social distancing guidelines, it’s only about a quarter of how many slots would be filled on a normal day.

Brigantine resident Frank Lardiere said the restrictions, which mainly focus on keeping players distanced and sanitizing equipment, wouldn’t affect his game.

“It’s you against the course, and the course always wins,” he said, commenting it was “wonderful” that the course was open and that it wasn’t too early for officials to reopen them.

“Everybody’s being conscientious,” he said. “I think it’s good for everybody. You can’t keep Americans in; we’re fighters.”

Matthew Strabuk / For The Press  

Terry Fallon and Carole Smith, of Ardmore, Pennsylvania, sit on the sand at Corsons Inlet State Park at the southern end of Ocean City.

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Pandemic showcases CRDA's focus on Atlantic City

ATLANTIC CITY — Starting about 6 a.m. and working through the day, a small team of employees and volunteers from Mike B’s Café and Cedar Food Market cooks and prepares hundreds of meals inside the kitchen at the All Wars Memorial Building for senior residents.

Each week for the next month, more than 3,700 seniors will receive free meals as members of the Atlantic City Department of Public Works, Police Department or Fire Department rotate delivering the food, Monday through Saturday, to buildings across the city, including Jeffries Tower, Best of Life, Community Haven and Altman Terrace.

The senior hot meals program is just one of several emergency initiatives, totaling more than $183,000 in costs, fast-tracked by the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority since the onset of the novel coronavirus pandemic. The authority also immediately funded food assistance and outreach programs for Jewish Family Service, the Hispanic Alliance of Atlantic County and Gateway Community Action Partnership, in addition to allocating more than $2 million for regional small business relief.

“There’s a real feeling on the board that we have responsibility to the people in Atlantic City,” said CRDA Chairman Robert Mulcahy. “There’s a unanimous feeling on the board to do anything we can to help (in the current) situation.”

The oft-maligned state agency — the only one of its kind anywhere in the country — has a complicated relationship with Atlantic City residents and business owners, who routinely question CRDA spending and its duty to the city. A 2018 state audit criticized the authority for financial and operational mismanagement, resulting in millions of dollars being spent in ways that had little positive impact on the city.

A self-described “observer” of CRDA, Geoff Rosenberger is among a handful of residents who routinely attend the agency’s monthly public meetings and remind the 17-member board that Atlantic City’s needs should be paramount. He said CRDA has “been moving in the right direction,” but there is still room for improvement.

“I believe that me being vocal has helped to reorient them toward the people of Atlantic City,” Rosenberger said. “We may never know how much is a dog-and-pony show and how much is sincere, because of the politics involved with the whole thing.”

But, as thousands of locals lost their jobs because of the mandated closing of almost all businesses to slow the spread of COVID-19, CRDA was among a host of local players to take swift action and assist the community.

“This is what people look to in a time of crisis, they look to their leaders,” said Mayor Marty Small Sr., a CRDA board member who spearheaded the senior meal program. “Kudos to the (CRDA) board members who have jumped at every level, all of them, to assist the good people of Atlantic City.”

Small credited CRDA Executive Director Matt Doherty, a former mayor of Belmar, Monmouth County, who took the helm in the summer of 2018, for “understanding what needs to be done” at the municipal level, but also for moving the authority in a direction that more directly benefits Atlantic City.

“I’ve said it privately, and I’ll say it publicly as well: I believe (Doherty) has been the best overall CRDA director when it comes to Atlantic City,” the mayor said.

The CRDA’s focus on Atlantic City has not been limited to responding to the resort’s needs during a pandemic. More than $10 million has been spent on public safety, $15 million for an expansion of AtlantiCare’s city campus and millions more on social services, redevelopment projects and entertainment in the past two years.

Doherty said the long-term plan for CRDA was laid out in the state’s transition report, which advocated for a more “active role” by the agency in shaping Atlantic City’s future.

“I think that during this time of crisis, (CRDA’s role) is just highlighted more,” Doherty said. “And we’re trying to move as quickly as possible because the needs are developing quickly.”

Vice Chairman Rich Tolson said the COVID-19 crisis reinforced his belief that CRDA should be taking a leadership role in bringing together Atlantic City’s social service agencies. A cohesive social service network would allow CRDA to more efficiently determine needs, he said, which may have meant a quicker response at the onset of the pandemic.

The unconventional intergovernmental agreement with Atlantic City and $69,552 contract to Mike B’s Cafe for the senior meals program drew questions from CRDA board members last month about whether proper protocols were followed. It was both an example of members’ due diligence and the need for a more collaborative approach when dealing with Atlantic City’s complex issues.

“I think we did a great job in responding to the city’s needs with the pandemic,” Tolson said, “but we need a more comprehensive, consistent approach to identifying and resolving issues.”