Gov. Phil Murphy signed two bills into law Friday aimed at addressing staffing shortages and residents' isolation at New Jersey's long-term care facilities, two areas of vulnerability exposed during the coronavirus pandemic.
The bills signed Friday were an outgrowth of a consultant's report released in June.
More than 7,000 people have died from COVID-19 in New Jersey's long-term care facilities, about half of the state's total deaths.
In May, the Democratic governor was forced to send the National Guard to nursing homes hit hard by the new coronavirus. The state's largest facility, in Andover, was fined more than $200,000 by federal health authorities for putting residents in its care at risk. In April, police acting on an anonymous tip found 18 bodies in a makeshift morgue at the home.
One bill signed Friday requires facilities to maintain a minimum staff-to-patient ratio during morning, evening and overnight shifts. During the height of the pandemic, many facilities operated with significantly reduced staffs as many employees fell sick themselves. A task force will develop strategies to attract and retain staff, Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli said.
The other bill requires facilities to create policies to prevent social isolation of residents and enable better communication with loved ones. Families of long-term care residents often were left scrambling for information about their loved ones for days or weeks. Visitation has been restricted for months.
To retain their licenses, facilities will have to ensure residents can have contact with other facility residents and family members, and be able to engage in religious and recreational activities, except when those activities are specifically restricted or prohibited. During those times, the bill requires facilities to have plans for virtual visitation.
Also on Friday, U.S. Rep. Josh Gottheimer, a Democrat whose district includes the Andover facility, announced bipartisan legislation to create nationwide requirements for facilities to have crisis plans, personal protective equipment stockpiles and to notify the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about outbreaks in real time.