ANDOVER, N.J. (CBSNewYork) - An anonymous tip led New Jersey police to find more than a dozen bodies inside a nursing home's morgue on Monday, deaths believed to be related to the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak.
The Andover Subacute and Rehabilitation Center, in Andover, N.J., was only equipped to handle four bodies on-site despite being the largest long-term care facility in the state. It is licensed for 673 beds.
The threat of COVID-19 at the facility in Sussex County was made clear outside the building Thursday. One by one, patients were wheeled out on stretchers with masks as first responders suited up in protective gear before going in.
"I am heartbroken by the tragic news," said Gov. Phil Murphy in his daily coronavirus briefing. "I am also outraged that bodies of the dead were allowed to pile up in a makeshift morgue at the facility. New Jerseyans living in our long term care facilities deserve to be cared for, with respect, compassion, and dignity. We can and must do better."
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Across the state as of Thursday, there have been 3,518 deaths from 75,317 confirmed COVID-19 cases, but the Andover case is exceptional.
"I just couldn't believe it," said Anita Brown who got an alarming message from the facility about her 76-year-old mother. "They called us last night and they told us she had a 104 fever and that she had low oxygen. They weren't going to send her to the hospital."
Brown learning that news days after Andover Police received a phone call over the weekend about the 25 body bags.
After authorities stopped by to investigate that call along with a report of a dead person in a shed, officers found more than a dozen bodies in a room intended to hold no more than four people.
"We removed 13 bodies Monday night," Andover Police Chief Eric Danielson. "Unfortunately there's not much I can say but we're working diligently to get as much help here as possible. Really the only place we can turn here is the state."
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Sources tell CBS2 since March 29, nearly 70 people from this facility have died. Two of them were employees.
While state health officials delivered protective equipment to the center, Mayor Michael Lensack is worried about staffing.
"We don't have any medically-training professionals," he said. "This is a 700-bed facility. Where do they go?"
Following this latest incident, the state's attorney general has been asked to "review of all long-term care facilities that have experienced a disproportionate number of deaths during the COVID outbreak," said Murphy.
For now, a refrigerator for additional bodies has been placed on-site, a temporary morgue Brown is praying her mom will not see, but the conditions inside leave her with an overwhelming amount of fear.
"They told us she was in her regular room," said Brown. "If she has 104 temperature, giving her oxygen, why is she in her regular room with two other roommates? They're not six feet apart."
The bodies were among 68 recent resident deaths linked to the facility, and 26 of the people who died had tested positive for COVID-19, said Department of Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli.
"Last Saturday we were notified that the facility was in need of body bags for deceased residents," she said. "It was also reported that there were 28 bodies being stored in that facility."
Since multiple reports about the overflow of bodies, Persichilli said they will be sending survey staff out to monitor Andover Subacute and Rehabilitation Center on a regular basis.
"We're not pleased with what is going on at the Andover facility," she said.
"We know this is an issue that is not unique to New Jersey," said Murphy. "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."
CBS2 tried speaking with the owners of the facility but as of Thursday evening, they were not available.
Late Thursday night, owner Mutty Scheinbaum released the following statement:
"The owners, administrators and our heroic healthcare staff of nurses and nurse aides have been working relentlessly to contain the virus and safeguard our residents and staff. The health and safety of our residents and staff is our utmost priority and responsibility. Ownership and administration is working around the clock to ensure we are able to resolve the pandemic. To clarify previous news reports, there was a total of 15 bodies in our holding room on April 13th. [Eight] of them actually expired on April 13th and a total of 13 bodies were removed before midnight on April 13th and occurred with the assistance of Andover police department."
Earlier this week, officials in New York City and elsewhere in New Jersey raised a cry of alarm that the issue with nursing home deaths remains one of the biggest issues in the current viral crisis.
In some cases, family members say they have been unable to reach their loved one inside nursing homes, comparing the situation to prisoners being held in captivity.
Statewide there have been nearly 2,500 deaths in nursing home and adult care facilities.
Atrium Post Acute Care in Park Ridge has seen 33 recent deaths - 19 of which are confirmed COVID-19 case. The rest are still pending.
Eighty others are reportedly sick at the longterm care facility.
In Brooklyn, an employee who did not want to be identified at the Crown Heights Center for Nursing and Rehabilitation gave CBS2 a video from last week showing nurses begging for COVID tests after seeing 22 deaths in seven days.
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