Health

Legislature to look into viral outbreak that led to 10 deaths at NJ pediatric facility

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The state Senate is planning a hearing to look into what factors may have contributed to the deadly viral outbreak at a pediatric healthcare facility that has so far claimed the lives of ten children, and continues to grow.

Sen. Joseph Vitale, D-Middlesex, who chairs the Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee, said many questions need to be answered in the adenovirus outbreak at the Wanaque Center for Nursing and Rehabilitation in Haskell.

“The public needs to know what happened,” he said. “The loss of a child is the very worst thing a family can endure, and we have an obligation as a legislature to make sure our infection controls and protocols are as current and effective as possible.”

Meanwhile, another case of infection was confirmed Thursday at the Wanaque Center, bringing the total number of pediatric cases associated with the outbreak to 28, the state Department of Health said late Thursday afternoon. Officials added that a staff member at the facility — who has since recovered — also became ill as part of the outbreak. 

Those stricken, who ranged from toddlers to teenagers, all became ill between Sept. 26 and Oct. 30. Health officials said the affected children had severely compromised immune systems — including respiratory problems — before the outbreak began.

“The loss of these young lives is heartbreaking, and our thoughts are with the families who are affected,” said Health Commissioner Shereef Elnahal said. “We are working closely with the facility to conduct respiratory illness surveillance and ensure all infection control protocols are continuously followed. We are also engaging in discussions with the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services on standards for these facilities.”

Adenovirus is a respiratory virus which can cause mild or serious illness, though serious illness is less common. Symptoms may include common cold, sore throat, bronchitis, pneumonia, diarrhea, pink eye, fever, bladder inflammation or infection, inflammation of the stomach and intestines and neurological disease.

Earlier this week, the Department of Health revealed a separate outbreak of adenovirus, this one at the Voorhees Pediatric Facility in South Jersey. Four kids have become ill, but there have been no fatalities reported.

The health department is awaiting additional laboratory test results from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention regarding the cases at Voorhees, but said preliminary test results have ruled out Type 7  — which has been identified in the far more severe outbreak at the Wanaque Center.

Vitale’s wants to schedule his hearing within the next two weeks.

The senator has already expressed his concerns over the long wait before parents were notified, as well as how long it took for the state to visit the Wanaque Center after it first learned there were sick children.

While health officials are still trying to determine how the outbreak grew, Vitale said the Legislature may need to take regulatory action.

“It’s awful. It’s awful,” he said of the mounting death toll. “I want to hear from the state. I want to hear from the Wanaque Center. I want to hear from the industry.”

State Sen. Joseph Vitale. (Geoff Mulvihill | AP file photo)

And he said he wanted to hear from family members, if they are willing to come.

“The legislature has passed bills about patient safety and infection control. And we’ve been fought by the industry,” Vitale said. “There’s a process here. On a mater this critical we don’t allow institution to decide on their own what’s best practice.”

Health department officials say they plan to launch a team of infection control experts and epidemiologists later this month to visit all four pediatric long-term care facilities in New Jersey — including Wanaque — to conduct training and assessments of infection control procedures.

They will also inspect University Hospital, in Newark, where, a possible bacterial infection (unrelated to the Wanaque Center outbreak) may have contributed to the death of a premature baby who had been in the hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit.

The Wanaque Center in northern Passaic County is a 227-bed nursing home, rehabilitation center and a pediatrics center, which offers short- and long-term care. Licensed for 92 pediatric beds, state officials said the facility has agreed to cease admitting new patients until the outbreak ends.

Editor’s note: Do you have a family member on the pediatric unit at the Wanaque Center for Nursing and Rehabilitation, or a child who has been affected by the viral outbreak there? NJ.com would like to hear from you. You may reach us at (732) 902-4559, or write to Susan Livio at slivio@njadvancemedia.com, Spencer Kent at skent@njadvancemedia.com, or Ted Sherman at tsherman@njadvancemedia.com.

Spencer Kent may be reached at skent@njadvancemedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerMKent. Find the Find NJ.com on Facebook.

Ted Sherman may be reached at tsherman@njadvancemedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @TedShermanSL. Facebook: @TedSherman.reporter. Find NJ.com on Facebook.

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