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Andover Rehabilitation and Subacute Care nursing home, which was “overwhelmed” with bodies amid a COVID-19 outbreak, seen from the air on April 16, 2020.

ANDOVER TOWNSHIP, N.J. – Gov. Phil Murphy said Thursday that he directed state law enforcement to look into a nursing home where police found 18 bodies in what he said was a “makeshift” facility.

Police found five bodies on Easter Sunday after receiving tips and found 13 Monday in a holding area after receiving a call about a body stored in a shed at the Andover Rehabilitation and Subacute Care I and II.

State officials said on Thursday that a total of 35 residents had died at the home, which is made up of two separate buildings, since the end of March, with 19 of of those deaths linked to COVID-19. The home is the state’s largest long-term care facility with almost 700 beds and more than 500 residents.

Murphy said he was “heartbroken” about reports of deaths at the facility and “outraged that bodies of the dead were piling up in a makeshift facility.” He said he “asked the state attorney general to look into the matter,” along with state health officials. Such a case, he said, “shakes you to your bones.”

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“New Jerseyans living in our long-term care facilities deserve to be cared for with respect, compassion and dignity,” Murphy said. “We can and must do better.”

The governor said the State Attorney General’s Office would do review all long-term facilities that have had a “disproportionate number of deaths during the COVID outbreak.”

The state Health Department sent a team of communicable disease experts to the facility to assist staff members and residents, the governor said.

“We know this is an issue that is not unique to New Jersey,” Murphy said. “It is national in scope. We know that there are bad actors in the industry across the country. But New Jersey can lead in how we respond to these issues.”

He said the situation was “completely beyond the pale” and “completely unacceptable.”

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Recent complaints, citations at facility

State Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli said that in addition to the deaths, the Andover facility had 103 other residents who tested positive for COVID-19 and 133 more who had flu-like symptoms. She said 52 staffers had flu-like symptoms.

An owner of the facility, Chaim Sheinbaum, said in a statement that its staffing levels were “solid” with 12 nurses and 39 certified nursing assistants, which he indicated is about normal. He said that holiday and weekend “issues” combined with more deaths than is usual contributed to “a greater number of bodies in the facility’s morgue.”

He said that the room “ideally” holds four bodies at a time and has a maximum capacity of 12. He said it never held more than 15 bodies at a time.

One section of the facility — known as Andover Subacute and Rehab II — has had 23 complaints resulting in citations over the past three years, according to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. It was given a one-star rating, which means “much below average,” on the Medicare website.

A November 2019 inspection resulted in five citations, including one for a patient whose hip fracture was not diagnosed until 11 days after a fall. It was also cited in its most recent fire inspections for not having a proper emergency preparedness plan and for not having elevators that firefighters could control in the event of a fire.

Federal data shows that the facility’s other building, Andover Subacute and Rehab I, fared better with a three-star rating. It had one cited deficiency earlier this year for failing to properly document a patient’s oxygen use, but the issue was corrected. It was cited in its most recent fire inspection for deficiencies with its automatic sprinkler system.

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Persichilli said state officials were notified on Saturday that the Andover facility needed body bags and that 28 bodies were being stored there, leading to the initial investigation by a local health official. She said that five bodies were found at the facility — another three had been released earlier in the day — and the home appeared to be adequately staffed at the time. It was told to report daily to the health department.

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After another report of bodies came in days later, she said, local health officials found that the facility was “short on staffing.” She said that health department staff has been sent to Andover to monitor the facility “on a regular basis.”

“We’re not pleased with what is going on at the Andover facility,” she said.

By Thursday, health and law enforcement officials had arranged for a refrigerator truck to be sent to the home to allow it to store bodies properly.

“Steps have been taken to adequately keep the remains of people who died at the facility,” said Greg Mueller, Sussex County’s First Assistant Prosecutor. He said that a refrigeration truck at the site would have adequate capacity, and that such trucks can store about 100 bodies.

Even as deaths mounted in the facility, the numbers weren’t reflected in official counts. The Sussex County Division of Health said that Andover Township had a total of 22 reported deaths related to COVID-19 as of Wednesday.

The Andover Township police chief, Eric Danielson, said this week that the investigations were prompted by calls from staff members and family members to the county Sheriff’s Department and to the police.

Contributing: Susanne Cervenka, Lori Comstock and Shannon Mullen of the USA TODAY Network.

Follow reporters Jennifer Jean Miller (@JMillerNJH), Abbott Koloff (@AbbottKoloff) and Lori Comstock (@LoriComstockNJH) on Twitter

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