Senate Dems reject Democrat’s request for probe of nursing home deaths

by Sophie Nieto-Munoz, New Jersey Monitor

State Sen. Nia Gill on Thursday demanded that lawmakers vote in favor of forming an oversight committee with subpoena power to investigate the 9,100 COVID-19 deaths in New Jersey nursing homes, but her move was rejected by a narrow vote.

Gill (D-Essex) characterized a probe into the deaths as one of “transparency and accountability” for the victims and those mourning them. COVID spread rapidly through nursing homes starting in March 2020, and deaths there account for nearly 30% of all COVID-related deaths in New Jersey.

“There’s a fast urgency of now for those families and loved ones who can’t figure out what happened,” Gill said in a passionate speech to the Senate. “There’s a fierce urgency for now, that this body investigate so that we can make sure it never happens again.”

She called for a vote on a Senate resolution (SR48) that would establish a special panel called the New Jersey Nursing Home Pandemic Response Investigation Committee. The measure, sponsored by Gill and a group of Senate Republicans, was referred to the Senate’s health committee when it was introduced in February but has not been heard yet.

Gill was quickly shut down after 17 of her Senate colleagues voted to table her motion. State Sen. Joe Vitale (D-Middlesex) proposed tabling, noting authorities are already scrutinizing what took place in nursing homes as COVID cases skyrocketed.

The State Commission of Investigation, state Attorney General’s Office and the U.S. Department of Justice are all investigating.

“Let’s get the information first from these investigators who are doing the deep dive, have subpoena power and can do the right thing and get us the information,” Vitale said.

“Nobody messes” with the Department of Justice and Attorney General’s Office, he said.

Almost all 17 votes in favor of rejecting Gill’s motion came from Democrats.

Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration has faced sharp criticism for its controversial approach to containing COVID in long-term care centers in the early weeks of the pandemic. Murphy signed an executive order in March 2020 directing facilities to admit people who tested positive. At the time, coronavirus was not known to be airborne.

The state has already settled a lawsuit with the families of 119 veterans homes residents who died of COVID-19, agreeing to pay nearly $53 million.

“Let us have the transparency and accountability every one of those 9,000 who are dead and the people who are mourning for them demand,” Gill said.

State Sen. Ed Durr (R-Gloucester) also asked for a vote on his bill that would give rebates to offset higher gas prices. Senate President Nicholas Scutari (D-Union) said Durr’s request was out of order and would not let a vote proceed.

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