ANDOVER, N.J. -- An extraordinary number of coronavirus-related deaths overwhelmed a nursing home in northern New Jersey where police found 18 bodies in what the governor called a “makeshift morgue” on two consecutive days earlier this week.
Police got an anonymous tip Monday that a body was being stored outside the home, Andover Township Police Chief Eric Danielson said Thursday.
When police arrived, he said, the body wasn't where the tipster had said it was — but they found 13 bodies inside. They were removed Monday night and taken to a hospital in a refrigerated truck.
The New Jersey Herald first reported the finding of the bodies, which followed the discovery of five bodies at the home Sunday after complaints from staff and family members to law enforcement.
Nineteen of the home's 35 residents who have died since March 30 had the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli said. Of more than 500 residents listed as of April 15, 103 had tested positive, and more than 100 more had symptoms. Fifty-two staff members also showed symptoms.
Local health officials visited early Sunday after the state health department received word the facility needed body bags, Persichilli said. On Tuesday, they reported that the facility was understaffed.
In an email Thursday, co-owner Chaim Scheinbaum argued that staffing was adequate but that an extraordinary number of deaths over the weekend had overwhelmed the facility's resources.
“The back up and after hours holiday weekend issues, plus more than average deaths, contributed to the presence of more deceased than normal in the facility holding room,” nursing home co-owner Chaim Scheinbaum wrote.
The area used to house deceased residents until they can be picked up by a funeral home has a normal capacity of four, “with a maximum of 12," Scheinbaum wrote.
Staffing at the facility is “solid” with 12 nurses, one more than normal, and 39 nursing assistants, one fewer than normal, Scheinbaum wrote.
Police released a photo of a box truck parked outside the home that was being used to store the bodies after a hazmat team removed them.
U.S. Rep. Josh Gottheimer, a Democrat whose district covers Andover Township, said he was notified over the weekend that the facility was “desperate for body bags." He said he had received calls and emails from concerned relatives.
“One of my concerns is that these facilities are not communicating in real time,” he said. “That’s what I’ve been hearing from families. That’s outrageous, it’s completely unacceptable that they have to call me for updates.”
Gov. Phil Murphy said at a news briefing Thursday that “several individuals” had died at the Andover nursing home and that he has asked the state attorney general to look into what happened there, as well as at any other nursing homes that have had many deaths.
The Democratic governor said he was “outraged that bodies of the dead were allowed to pile up in a makeshift morgue at the facility. New Jerseyans living in our long-term care facilities deserve to be cared for with respect, compassion and dignity.”
The coronavirus has spread quickly through nursing homes around the country, leading to pressure on federal health officials to publicly track COVID-19 infections and deaths. In New Jersey, 471 residents of long-term care facilities had died through Wednesday, and 358 of the state’s 375 facilities have reported positive cases, according to state health officials.
Since last month, the state has banned visitation, ordered universal masking and required that all facilities notify residents, family and staff of any outbreaks.
Persichilli said this week that 123 long-term care facilities have been prohibited from admitting patients because they haven't demonstrated they can effectively segregate COVID-19-infected residents from those who aren't infected.
In the past week, Persichilli said, the state had distributed more than 100,000 N95 masks, nearly 700,000 surgical masks, 7,000 face shields and more than 700,000 gloves to long-term facilities.
Associated Press writer Mike Catalini contributed to this report.