(Photos courtesy of the families)
The adenovirus outbreak that swept through the Wanaque Center for Nursing and Rehabilitation in Haskell, NJ in the fall of 2018 hit the most vulnerable and voiceless the hardest. But they didn’t just get sick. They also died.
According to health department officials, the first kids started getting sick with what was diagnosed on Sept. 26 as a respiratory ailment and within a matter of weeks, 36 people had contracted viral infections (including one staff member who recovered).
“…led to the deaths of 11 children and infected 25 other residents, ranging from toddlers to teenagers. Some had parents and families in their lives. Others were all-but-alone, without mothers or fathers, marking birthdays with celebrations put together by caregivers who would try to make the day special with cake and balloons — stepping in to buy the kids gifts, or sometimes using their own money to make sure the children had the supplies like warm socks, recalled the aunt of one child.
Most of their names and faces remain unknown, and so their stories may never be told. The state will not disclose who they are, citing privacy concerns. The owners of the nursing home won’t say very much at all, except to express their condolences and note their cooperation with state investigators.
The outbreak now is considered over. But three months after the horrible toll of dead kids began to mount, there are still few answers and little closure to those who mourn children who faced an everyday struggle to live.”1
That last fact, that there are few answers and even fewer people talking, is unacceptable.
Daiiyah Bryant, of Bushkill, Pennsylvania, mother to little Amaya who may have been the first person to die (October 6th) said, “They don’t feel they owe us an explanation or an apology. Explain to me, and try to comfort me at the very least, because you can’t give me my baby back. I don’t know about the other parents, but I sat there and watched my daughter disintegrate for two weeks. I held her as she died.”2
And Tamara Cooper of Paterson, mother to two-year-old Dondre, who had cerebral palsy and epilepsy, said:
“There was no sign of anything. You would have never known,” she said in an interview. “They didn’t have any hand sanitizer, like any covers on — it was like a normal day at the Wanaque.”3
But that day she saw her child the infection was already spreading through Wanaque and it seems that officials there were doing nothing.
Some workers have alleged (very anonymously) that the facility deliberately delayed sending sick kids to the hospital because administrators didn’t want to lose the Medicaid funding (the facility has strongly denied that) and still others say it’s no surprise since they are chronically understaffed (which another staffer echoed saying charts were falsified to disguise the fact).
One thing we do know for sure is that there has been little public outrage and near silence from advocacy groups. Which should concern us all. However, according to Arthur Caplan, a noted bioethicist at the New York University Langone Medical Center,
“I am afraid institutionalized children are a bit out of sight out of mind,” he said, adding that both the U.S. and the states do not help families, nor do they get much attention from patient groups. There are few advocates, and no media attention without a horrific crisis — and even then, not much outrage.
‘It is a moral travesty that too often in a nation that speaks of a right to life, these kids are left to wallow in poor institutions often with poor daily health care.'”4
But how did this even happen? Yes there wasn’t enough space to keep the sick from the healthy, but how did this center manage to hide their inadequacies from state auditors? Sherry McGhie, a certified nurse aide reported that when state inspectors would enter the building, a call would go over the intercom, “Extension 100.”
Meaning, “The state is here. Time to put your best foot forward.”
Although The Wanaque Center (unlike most nursing homes in the state because its patients include a mix of both the elderly and children, including a separate unit that specializes in the care of so-called “medically fragile” kids who depended on ventilators to breathe) looks like a bright and vibrant place for children, and is currently one of only four pediatric facilities in New Jersey able to care for kids with complex medical issues, it is anything but.
“Under its previous ownership, Seniors Management North of Cherry Hill, the nursing facility then known as the Wanaque Convalescent Center also expanded its pediatric beds, with a focus on the “medically fragile” kids who depend on ventilators to help them breathe. In 2006, Wanaque was licensed for 135 long-term adult beds, and 82 pediatric long-term care beds, according to state Department of Health spokeswoman Donna Leusner. In 2007, the state approved an increase in license pediatric beds to its current 92.
The facility’s former medical director, Frank Briglia, later charged in an ongoing federal whistleblower lawsuit against Seniors Management North that the expansion in the number of pediatric beds was driven by efforts to maximize Medicaid profits. His lawsuit against the old ownership, which is still pending, also alleged that the management increased the number of kids dependent on ventilators to take advantage of higher Medicaid billing, and prioritized admissions of kids from New York state, which paid far more than New Jersey’s Medicaid reimbursement rate.”5
That lawsuit is still pending.
Parents of the children who died say they never knew what was going on and employees claim “that senior administrators delayed sending kids to the hospital, even as many started dying.”6
Gov. Phil Murphy has pledged to find answers. The Department of Health has opened an investigation, and the state Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee has also launched its own inquiry.
Our hearts go out to these poor families. We hope they get the justice they deserve and soon.