NEWTON — Members of the Sussex County freeholder board, in their first official comments regarding the more than 45 coronavirus deaths that have taken place in county nursing homes since the end of March, provided little insight Wednesday into why the rising death toll was kept from the public for as long as it was but insisted county health officials were doing everything they could behind the scenes to get the state to address the situation.


The reaction from members of the public who participated in the remote meeting, however, suggests some of them remain unconvinced that county health officials were being as communicative with the public about the problem as they say they were being with officials in Trenton.


Calling the situation "nothing less than heartbreaking," Freeholder Anthony Fasano said Wednesday that county health officials properly reported the initial outbreak of COVID-19 at the Andover Subacute and Rehabilitation Center and other long-term care facilities in the county to the state Department of Health in late March.


Despite this, Freeholder Director Sylvia Petillo said "we didn't always know what was going on because we were not inside" the facilities.


"The county does not have any authority or jurisdiction over the Andover facility," Petillo said. "That facility is regulated, controlled and overseen by the state of New Jersey. We all felt helpless and my heart is broken for what's going on there, and our concern and love and compassion is with all of the families."


But John Mannion, of Montague, faulted some of the freeholders for appearing to place most of the blame on the state Department of Health rather than with some of the county's own officials.


"For three weeks, while the death toll of long-term care patients in Sussex County due to the coronavirus was steadily climbing into the triple dozens, our county health department and county administration refused to even acknowledge there was a problem with our county's nursing homes," Mannion said. "Instead, like good bureaucrats, they continued keeping a running tally of the daily death toll and funneling the body count up to the state while the rest of us county residents — including some who have relatives at these facilities — were kept in the dark."


Mannion also faulted county health officials for initially claiming they couldn't divulge the information because of patient privacy rules — the very excuse that many patients' relatives were receiving from long-term care facilities when they first inquired about COVID-19 outbreaks on their premises.


That changed a week ago when, after the extent of the death toll was initially reported in the New Jersey Herald, Sussex County Administrator Gregory Poff put out a detailed statement acknowledging for the first time that, since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, there had been 57 deaths at Andover Subacute as of April 15 and that 26 of these deaths had been caused by the virus — a number that, as of Wednesday, had climbed to 31.


One man, who declined to state his name out of concern for the safety of his mother who he said is still a patient at Andover Subacute, told the freeholders Wednesday that "we never got any notification about anything and didn't know anything until the paper blew up with all this."


Mannion, in response, asked: "What law suddenly changed that prevented our county administrator and county health officer from releasing this information previously? And if our county administrator and our county health department weren't responsible for the decision not to release the information, then who was responsible and who advised them not to release it?"


"The continuing refusal by these officials to answer these questions leads to one inescapable conclusion — that this wasn't an honest mistake but a purposeful cover-up," Mannion said.


Kristy Lavin, a former freeholder candidate and current resident of Hardyston whose uncle passed away at Andover Subacute on April 4, told the members of the freeholder board Wednesday that she appreciated the compassion voiced by each of them regarding the loss of life. She said, however, that now was not the time for pointing fingers or placing blame.


"Now is the time to see what can be done in the future in terms of prevention and, on a county level, what is within your power to make sure nothing like this ever happens again," Lavin said.


"When I think about what you can do," she added, "you can be transparent, you can educate the public in terms of long-term care facilities where our most vulnerable reside (and) educate the public to make sure that family members know who to reach out to to voice grievances. That's something that's within the county's power."


Freeholder Deputy Director Dawn Fantasia, however, bitterly lamented what she said was the stymieing of the county by the state, which she faulted for a lack of urgency in responding to the initial reports received from the county health division. "You can call it finger-pointing all you want; I call it accountability," Fantasia said.


One bit of good news to emerge from Wednesday's freeholder meeting was the prospect that a COVID-19 test site might be on the verge of opening in Sussex County. Poff, the county administrator, said final arrangements for one are being made at this time.


Fantasia said the county's public health nursing team has also created a unit to begin tracking the number of Sussex County residents diagnosed with the COVID-19 virus who have since recovered.


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