Catherine Onuska is the matriarch of a large New Jersey family. The 98-year-old — a resident at St. Joseph’s Senior Nursing Home and Assisted Living Facility in the Strawberry Hill section of Woodbridge — has seven children, 18 grandchildren and dozens of great-grandchildren.
She was used to daily visits from her loving family members, until the coronavirus outbreak struck St. Joseph’s, infecting residents and staffers and claiming the life of one person living there.
First, Onuska’s granddaughter, Debbie Harris of Scotch Plains, said, visiting was restricted. Then residents’ families were told of staffing shortages due to COVID-19 sweeping through workers at the facility. Finally, this week, came the order from the state to shut down the nursing home and move residents elsewhere.
The whole process, which saw residents being bussed to a facility in Whippany Wednesday, has been a frightening and confusing one for the family members of residents, Harris said.
“We feel like once they shut out the general public, things went downhill,” she said. “They really didn’t keep us informed.”
The scene outside of St. Joseph’s on Wednesday morning was stark, with people dressed in yellow protective suits moving residents in wheelchairs on to long ambulance buses. By Wednesday afternoon, the St. Joseph’s residents had arrived and were being moved into the new facility.
“We are closely monitoring the condition of all the patients and residents from St. Joseph’s and will provide them with the best quality healthcare possible, which starts with getting them into our facility,” Lizzy Straus, CareOne’s Executive Vice President, said in a statement.
The first case of COVID-19 was reported at St. Joseph’s on March 16, Woodbridge Mayor John McCormac previously told NJ Advance Media. Since then the number has climbed to 11 cases, according to the daily updates sent by McCormac to Woodbridge residents.
There has been at least one death among the St. Joseph’s patients, which McCormac announced on Sunday.
All of the St. Joseph’s residents have been tested for COVID-19, according to the state Department of Health. Not all of the test results have come back yet, so the number of cases from the facility could continue to grow.
St. Joseph’s did not respond to an email with questions regarding the coronavirus outbreak at the nursing home. A man who answered the phone at St. Joseph’s declined to comment for this story.
Speaking at a press conference on Tuesday, DOH Commissioner Judith Persichilli said that a dozen St. Joseph’s employees had been forced to stay home from work in recent days because they had flu-like symptoms. That caused an acute staffing crisis at the facility, which had just three nurses left to care for the residents while their colleagues were quarantined at home.
Wednesday, after a state order to shut St. Joseph’s, all of its residents were moved from the Woodbridge facility to CareOne Hanover in the Whippany section of Hanover Township.
“We are thankful that the Governor and Commissioner of Health took quick and decisive action to move 79 of our residents to a safer environment and we thank all state, county and township officials who completed the monumental task very successfully,” McCormac told NJ Advance Media.
To prepare for the new arrivals, CareOne said it transferred all of the residents at its Hanover location to other facilities owned by the company. This means that the only residents at CareOne Hanover for the time being will be the St. Joseph’s residents.
“Reviewing the availability of rooms in our facilities, we were able to temporarily relocate our residents from CareOne at Hanover in Whippany to nearby CareOne facilities, enabling us to accommodate the St. Joseph patients,” Straus said.
St. Joseph’s is a non-profit facility operated by the Little Servant Sisters of the Immaculate Conception,according to the facility’s website. There are 60-beds for the assisted living part of the operation, and 51-beds in the nursing center. St. Joseph’s has a five-star rating from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
Nursing homes like St. Joseph’s have emerged areas of particularly high risk from the coronavirus. An outbreak of COVID-19 at the Family of Caring at Montclair nursing home has been linked to four deaths. State officials said nine New Jersey coronavirus deaths reported on Tuesday, and five more reported on Wednesday, were associated with long-term care facilities like nursing homes. Persichilli noted that Tuesday’s press conference that at least one case of the coronavirus had been found in 19 different Garden State long-term care facilities.
The DOH order that directed St. Joseph’s to shut down and transfer its residents to CareOne Hanover states that a resident can be taken home by whoever has their power of attorney.
“If families want to take residents home, they can do that,” Donna Luesner, a DOH spokeswoman, said. “If the resident is COVID-19 positive, precautions should be taken to prevent spread of the illness to other family members.”
Onuska’s family members said they were told Tuesday that the 98-year-old tested positive for the coronavirus.
Harris said her family was surprised Wednesday to learn that her grandmother was being moved to the new facility so soon, after initially being told that the move would likely be done at the end of the week. Now, they’ll have to figure out what’s next as they deal with Onuska’s diagnosis.
“In these difficult times, we need to watch out for our most vulnerable,” Harris said, “not expose them to a deadly virus and neglect them and keep them from the people who love them.”
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