New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy's administration has been accused since early in the pandemic of failing to protect the residents and employees of nursing and veterans homes. Veterans home staffers have filed 41 lawsuits against the Murphy administration this month alone.
They describe how nursing home management was caught off-guard by COVID, and how managers penalized staffers for trying to protect themselves. And the problems, they say, go to the top — to Murphy and his state Department of Health.
Scott Fallon has been reporting on the pandemic for NorthJersey.com. He spoke about where things stand with All Things Considered host Sean Carlson on WNYC Wednesday. The transcript of their discussion below has been lightly edited for clarity.
Sean Carlson: Tell us a bit about who is suing the administration and what sorts of problems they're citing.
Scott Fallon: So we've already had about 190 families of veterans home residents who passed away that have sued the Murphy administration. Those lawsuits have been settled to a tune of $69 million. This month, 41 employees at the Menlo Park veterans home filed lawsuits against the Murphy administration, claiming that they got ill because of a lack of infection control measures, ill preparedness and a number of other claims.
I think we all can remember early on in the pandemic, when guidance was changing constantly, right? There was so much confusion. When the administration explains why it took on the policies that it did, does that come up?
It does a lot, and there was a lot of confusion at the time. But there were a lot of things that were done that were very questionable by the veterans home administrators. There was this adamant policy against mask-wearing by staffers, especially in March of 2020. There were disciplinary proceedings that were set up for nurses who used the facility's masks. They wouldn't let outside vendors, including ambulance drivers, come in wearing masks for fear that it would make residents afraid. And it was something that was very disconcerting among the staff there, and they claimed that it led to greater spread of COVID in the facility.
What are the prospects of accountability here? These 41 lawsuits are not the first to deal with how New Jersey handled the pandemic at long-term care facilities. Are these going to change anything?
Generally, the lawsuits are all being settled out of court. So there will not be a day in court in which everything will be disclosed. Murphy has said for two years, many times, that he wants a "post mortem" on how his administration handled the pandemic, but he has yet to move on that at all. We even asked him [Tuesday] about it. And he said, again, it's a wait-and-see prospect, but he vows that it will happen.
There are three investigations going on, one by the (state) attorney general, one by the Department of Justice and one by the State Commissioner of Investigation. Where those stand, we don't know just yet. But nothing official has happened with them.
What about Murphy here? There's a lot of speculation about national ambitions for him. Is there political accountability on this? Do you think it could follow him onto the national stage? We remember in New York, former Gov. Andrew Cuomo having his own, issues with accountability on that front.
Absolutely. The Republicans have hammered him on this issue, and his gubernatorial opponent, Jack Ciattarelli, last year surprised a lot of people when he came very close to beating Murphy. So the issue is out there. And if Murphy decides to run for higher office, I'm sure the Republicans and his other opponents, perhaps in the primary, will bring this up.
What's next for the administration here, in terms of the possible fallout over the problems? And will the investigations be made public?
The investigations by law enforcement agencies, by the attorney general, the Department of Justice and by the State Commissioner of Investigation — they have to act on it before anything can come out in public. And so far they haven't. Some subpoenas have been served, interviews have been conducted, but right now, we don't know the extent of it. We don't know, really, what the fallout is going to be for those investigations.