Sussex County health officials knew over three weeks ago about a deadly coronavirus outbreak at the Andover Subacute and Rehabilitation Centers and reported this information to the state but kept the public in the dark the entire time, even as the body count of victims climbed into the dozens and as frantic relatives began desperately searching for answers about the fate of patients at the facility, which the state has now barred from admitting new patients.


Had the Sussex County Health Division been transparent with the information instead of withholding it, the public would have since learned that over 80% — 45 out of 54 —of the county's coronavirus deaths reported through early Monday were of patients in long-term care facilities. The rate is more than double the state average of 40% as stated by New Jersey Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli at a governor's press briefing on Saturday.


The public would also have learned that the 31 coronavirus deaths reported through Monday at the Andover Subacute II facility were the second highest death toll for any long-term care facility in the state, an amount that does not include the additional 8 deaths that have occurred at the Andover Subacute I facility. Only the Veterans Memorial Home in Paramus, with 44 deaths, has had a higher death toll.


Since Thursday, the New Jersey Herald has been attempting to obtain an explanation from county officials as to why they refused, without ever stating a reason, to provide even an aggregate total of the number of coronavirus deaths at long-term care facilities in the county — let alone a facility-by-facility breakdown — when the information was first requested on March 29.


Sussex County Administrator Gregory Poff, reached by phone on Friday and told the New Jersey Herald was seeking answers for an article in progress, accused a reporter of "threatening" him and hung up the phone.


On Saturday, Sussex County Health Division Director James McDonald replied with an email stating that it is the policy of the division not to share patient-specific information — something the Herald never asked for — except with local law enforcement for purposes of protecting first responders in the event of a 9-1-1 call at that person's residence.


"Health Departments will never share specific patient information which could otherwise identify who they are. This would include a patient's address," wrote McDonald.


"If a Health Department is not sharing personal information such as an address of the residence of our COVID-19 positive patients,“ he added, ”then this would extend to wherever they reside, including a long term care facility."


The New Jersey Herald has since repeated its request to McDonald that he cite a law or regulation preventing him from disclosing aggregate nursing home deaths or else identify who advised him that the information could not be shared. As of late Monday, no further response from him had been received.


The county health division also has yet to reconcile or explain the 31 total deaths reported for Andover Township as a municipality with the total of 39 deaths that have been confirmed at the Andover Subacute I and II facilities.


But the state Department of Health is no longer waiting. With several long-term care facilities including Andover Subacute having been less than forthcoming about COVID-19 outbreaks in their facilities and with county health officials apparently unwilling to provide the information to the public, the state is now going to start doing so for them.


Persichilli, the state health commissioner, said at Gov. Phil Murphy's press briefing Monday that "repeatedly, we have reinforced their obligation to inform residents, staff and families. However, we are still hearing concerns that that is not taking place so in the full interest of transparency, we are sharing the details."


According to the state, five of the eight long-term care facilities in Sussex County have had people test positive for the virus, and four have had people die as a result. The specific results are as follows: Andover Subacute I, 28 positive cases and 8 deaths; Andover Subacute II, 106 cases and 31 deaths; Barn Hill Care Center (Newton), 8 positive cases and zero deaths; Homestead Rehabilitation and Health Care (Frankford), 25 positive cases and 4 deaths; Valley View Rehabilitation and Health Care Center (Newton), 18 positive cases and 6 deaths.


The other three long-term care facilities in the county — Bentley Assisted Living (Frankford), Chelsea Senior Living (Sparta), and United Methodist Homes at Bristol Glen (Newton) — have not had any cases of the virus reported to date.


The complete list, which includes 425 nursing homes and health care facilities throughout New Jersey where coronavirus outbreaks have sickened or killed residents, can be viewed online at covid19.nj.gov.


Persichilli added Monday that long-term care facilities that have had deficiencies identified have been ordered to submit corrective action plans this week. In the case of Andover Subacute, those plans were due Monday.


"As a result of our finding at Andover Subacute and Rehab Center, we are requiring them to hire a consultant administrator, a consultant director of nursing, an infection control professional, and they are to cease all admissions," Persichilli said. "They must inform the department today (Monday) of their progress and selection of these individuals, who must be approved by the Department of Health."


Persichilli said the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, known as CMS, issued additional guidelines over the weekend reminding long-term care centers of their legal obligation to notify residents, staff and families of infectious disease outbreaks at their facilities.


"CMS is also reinforcing an existing requirement in New Jersey that nursing homes must report communicable diseases, healthcare-associated infections, and potential outbreaks to state and local health departments," Persichilli said.


"That is already a New Jersey regulation,“ she added. ”They (CMS) will also require that these reports go directly to CMS. We remind all long-term care facilities and all other healthcare facilities that they should report suspect outbreaks immediately to their local health departments. This will enable the local health departments to assist facilities in assessing the outbreak and put proper infection control procedures in place."


Eric Obernauer can also be contacted on Twitter: @EricObernNJH or by phone at 973-383-1213.