North Jersey Record
Published 5:09 PM EDT Oct 23, 2018
Six children at a long-term care facility for medically fragile children in New Jersey have died as a result of a severe outbreak of adenovirus, the state health department said Tuesday.
The Wanaque Center for Nursing and Rehabilitation has been barred from admitting new patients until the outbreak ends, the department said.
Twelve other children have also become ill in the outbreak, and the department described it as "an ongoing outbreak investigation."
Nurses at the center, which came under new for-profit ownership in 2014, have reported staff shortages that "may lead to poor infection control practices that can put patient safety at risk," said Debbie White, president of the Health Professionals and Allied Employees union local. The local represents 70 registered nurses.
Health department investigators returned to the facility Tuesday after a visit Sunday found "minor handwashing deficiencies." The state was notified of respiratory illnesses at the center on Oct. 9.
The deaths occurred in October, but the specific dates were not released "for reasons of medical privacy," said Donna Leusner, a Health Department spokeswoman.
Gov. Phil Murphy said Tuesday that he was “heartbroken” by the news of the deaths, and would “pray for the full recovery” of the other children.
Assemblywoman Holly T. Schepisi, a Republican whose district includes Wanaque, said she was “shocked that it took several weeks for the public to become aware of an outbreak that resulted in multiple deaths of vulnerable children.”
Adenoviruses are common viruses that affect the lining of the airways, intestines, eyes or urinary tract and are responsible for some colds, coughs, sore throats, pinkeye and diarrhea.
Usually, the illnesses are mild, but for people with weakened immune systems they can be deadly.
The strain of adenovirus identified at the center, No. 7, usually causes acute respiratory illness, such as pneumonia, croup and bronchitis, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
"Unfortunately, the particular strain of adenovirus in this outbreak is affecting medically fragile children with severely compromised immune systems," the department said. "The combination of a worse strain of adenovirus, together with a fragile population, has led to a more severe outbreak."
Once a chronic-care facility has an outbreak, it can be hard to contain, said Dr. Aryeh Baer, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Hackensack University Medical Center.
"It's very easy for a caregiver to touch a patient, the virus gets on their hand, then they touch something else, and it will be there for a long period of time," he said. The virus is not easily removed by common disinfectants, and it can live for days on hard surfaces like doorknobs or light switches.
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Rowena Bautista, the center's administrator, said "facility staff have diligently implemented all available infection control and prevention measures" to protect residents' health and safety.
The center notified all the appropriate government agencies promptly, Bautista said, including the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Passaic County Health Department.
"The Wanaque Center continues to fully cooperate with these agencies," she said, “and has sought out their medical guidance with respect to the virus."
The center is owned by a private corporation, Wanaque Nursing & Rehabilitation, whose officers are listed as Daniel Bruckstein and Eugene Ehrenfeld. A message left at their office was not immediately returned.
Children at the center are severely disabled. Some live in comas, and many will never walk or talk. For most, the center is their permanent home, with some living there from birth through age 21.
The center is able to provide care for more than 60 children who depend on ventilators to breathe. It is licensed to care for 92 children and 135 adults. Many became residents because of neuromuscular and respiratory problems caused by genetic issues, accidents at birth or abuse they suffered.
The CDC began tracking outbreaks of adenovirus infection in 2014, after a large outbreak in Oregon of the same type identified in Wanaque.
Outbreaks of the virus among military recruits once were common, but these decreased after a vaccine was developed. However, the vaccine is not given to non-military populations.