Murphy to fund single-patient rooms at NJ vets homes to avert another disaster

About $21 million in state funds would be used to convert all the rooms at New Jersey's veterans homes to single occupancy in an effort to avert another infectious disease disaster after the COVID-19 pandemic claimed more than 200 residents' lives, according to Gov. Phil Murphy's budget proposal unveiled Tuesday.

The move comes five months after the State Commission of Investigation recommended expediting the transition from double-occupancy rooms at the homes in Paramus and Menlo Park, where the virus spread like wildfire, resulting one of the highest nursing home death tolls of the pandemic nationwide.

The $21 million is earmarked in Murphy's budget proposal, which he released Tuesday in Trenton. It still has to go through months of legislative hearings before it is enacted on July 1. About 65% of the project will be funded by the federal government.

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Murphy did not mention the project in his budget address Tuesday.

Veterans groups and other advocates have said that single occupancy rooms may help avert a high death toll if another highly contagious virus were to hit the homes. Among the many questionable practices at the homes is that residents who tested positive continued to share rooms with those who were negative almost two months into the pandemic, even though dozens had already died, an investigation by the U.S. Justice Department found.

Lax infection control, an insistence by management that the disease was not at the facilities and an anti-mask policy so strenuous that managers devised penalties with help from Murphy's office were among a number of questionable decisions made during a critical time that caused the virus to spread quickly, according to several investigations and reporting by NorthJersey.com.

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Among those who have been calling for single occupancy rooms for years is the New Jersey Veterans of Foreign Wars, which met with Murphy in 2022 and urged him to slate money for the conversions.

In a similar vein, The Valley Hospital has designed its $800 million new hospital in Paramus, which opens in April, entirely with single occupancy rooms.

Murphy allocated $400,000 last year to start conversions at Menlo Park, which is scheduled to be completed in 2025. Paramus had no target date.

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That caught the attention of the State Commission of Investigation, which urged in its report to fast-track the conversions at both facilities. "In the interim, home residents remain less protected and vulnerable to another outbreak," the report reads.

The $21 million would come from the "Debt Defeasance and Prevention Fund" to help pay for the construction, according to Murphy's "budget in brief" document. Murphy is also calling for an additional $1 million for staff salaries at homes that have long had staffing problems and $2 million in State Fiscal Recovery Fund money to replace beds, mattresses and medical equipment in the homes.

This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Murphy plans single-patient rooms at NJ veterans homes