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New Jersey Investigates State's Nursing Homes, Hotbed Of COVID-19 Fatalities

Coronavirus fatalities in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities account for at least one-third of the deaths in 26 states.

In New Jersey's nursing homes, the coronavirus has proved especially deadly: 53% of the more than 9,000 people who have died from COVID-19 as of Monday in the state were long-term care patients or staff.

Now, New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal has opened an investigation into possible misconduct at those facilities.

In addition to the high infection and death rates, Grewal says there were other issues that prompted the launch of the investigation.

"It was also the reporting that we were seeing and hearing about how bodies were being handled, about the lack of communication and transparency with families," he tells All Things Considered. "Because of all of those reasons, we felt an obligation to look for answers and to figure out if something went wrong, what happened, and if there are people to be held accountable, who those people are."

In one case, 17 bodies were discovered last month in a makeshift morgue at a facility in Andover, N.J.

In the first few days after Grewal's office asked the public to report any leads on possible misconduct, he says more than 200 tips poured in.

Here are excerpts from the interview.

Is your investigation more focused on what happened after the deaths at these nursing homes — or on what factors may have contributed to these high death rates?

It's both. We have a number of theories of liability. It could be anything from consumer fraud to criminal homicide to criminal or civil false claims to regulatory violations. If people cut corners, if they put profits over patients, if they weren't adequately staffed, if there was some degree of negligence. But certainly in the handling of corpses, if there was anything that was criminal in that aspect of it as well, we're looking at that as well.

Do you think New Jersey had enough oversight over these facilities, or do you think that had there been closer monitoring, more regulation of these facilities, there may have been fewer deaths?

I think it's premature for me to reach that conclusion; I think certainly that's one aspect of what we'll be looking at. If there are things that could have been done better by any entity, whether that's regulators or operators, because our goal is, like I said at the outset, not only to hold folks accountable if they contributed to death rates or if they cut corners or if they were negligent or criminally or civilly liable, but also to chart a path forward where we could protect these vulnerable populations better against the next pandemic or against the next wave.

Listen to the full interview at the audio link above.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Maureen Pao is an editor, producer and reporter on NPR's Digital News team. In her current role, she is lead digital editor and producer for All Things Considered. Her primary responsibility is coordinating, producing and editing high-impact online components for complex, multipart show projects and host field reporting.
Ailsa Chang
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.