At hearing, lawmakers look for answers on deadly adenovirus outbreak

BY Brenda Flanagan, Senior Correspondent |

An attorney spoke while emotional parents sat before a Senate committee, holding photos of six children who contracted the adenovirus at the Wanaque Center for Nursing and Rehabilitation. Two of them, Dorcase Dolcin and Elizabeth Poulous, are among 11 medically fragile children who died during the virus outbreak.

“One of the common threads in all my clients situations is the fact that Wanaque Center did not timely and appropriately communicate with them regarding the adenovirus outbreak,” said attorney Paul De Costa.

“There was no communication whatsoever. In some instances, parents were finding out that their child was going to die hours before the child died,” said Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi.

Lawmakers expressed their outrage before the Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee. One former Wanaque staffer testified that the center delayed sending sick kids to the hospital so it could keep beds filled and continue receiving Medicaid money — about $518 per child per day — because New Jersey doesn’t pay for empty beds.

“In recent years I witnessed a change in how quickly the facility will send a patients to the hospital if they were ill. It is well known among the staff that a major priority was to keep the beds full,” said nurse Sherrie McGee.

Nurses from the center also alleged it’s understaffed, needs more oversight and wasn’t ready to respond to the crisis.

“These patients are at high risk for infections so there are additional precautions the Wanaque should have taken to protect these children. It seems to us they didn’t have a plan,” said Debbie White, president of Local 5107 of the Health Professionals and Allied Employees Union.

But senators criticized medical staff for failing to observe proper infection control procedures.

“Did these children die because of a lack of communication between the facility and staff? I’m not so sure about that. Could it have contributed? I don’t know,” said Sen. Joe Vitale, who chairs the committee.

State Health Commissioner Shereef Elnahal told senators that he wanted to cohort, or isolate, the sick children at Wanaque immediately but the facility lacked enough space. No further infections occurred after the sick and exposed children were separated in mid-November, he noted. One state senator testified that has to change.

“Every parent of every patient deserves to know that their child will be safe when entrusted to a pediatric hospital, and that we’re going to force those facilities to develop plans that provide that assurance,” said Sen. Gerry Cardinale.

Elnahal indicated Wanaque followed proper procedures when it waited for a lab test result before calling the state, even though the first victim had already died.

“When we were notified, there were 20 symptomatic patients, and that day there was a positive lab test that came back for adenovirus. So that met the technical definition of an outbreak which is required to be reported to the department,” said Elnahal.

Elnahal himself wasn’t informed of the outbreak until 10 days after the state was notified Oct. 9, and he’s ordered that rule to change. Another hearing could be scheduled, pending a full report from the health commissioner. Senators expressed displeasure that no one from the company that runs Wanaque, Continuum Healthcare, responded to their invitation to testify.

“And if they refuse again, I think we should seek subpoena power from the full Senate and drag their butts in here,” said state Sen. Dick Codey.

The state has ordered Wanaque not to admit any more patients until the outbreak is over, but several parents whose children recovered said they don’t want them going back.

The Wanaque Center’s administrator issued a statement saying in part that any allegations financial concerns took precedence over medical judgement are quote, “categorically false,” adding a public hearing was not the appropriate forum to provide information on patients or their care.