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National Association of Social Workers NJ: Institutional Residents Among the Most Vulnerable During the COVID-19 Crisis

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Press Release



updated: May 11, 2020 11:00 EDT


While much attention has been paid to the devastating impact of COVID-19 in long-term care facilities and corrections facilities across the state of New Jersey, NASW-NJ reports that many of the most vulnerable individuals continue to be exposed. In state-run psychiatric hospitals and developmental centers, infection and death rates are significantly higher than the rates amongst the state’s total population.

Our four state-operated psychiatric hospitals—Trenton, Greystone, Ancora and the Ann Klein Forensic Center—have a combined population of 1,239 residents. NASW-NJ reports that as of May 8, twelve residents of these facilities have died due to COVID-19 infection and 177 (9%) have confirmed positive diagnoses. This COVID-19 related death rate (1% of the total residential psychiatric population) is 100 times greater than the statewide death rate.1

Our state-operated residential developmental centers for men and women with developmental disabilities are similarly impacted. The Green Brook, Woodbine, New Lisbon, Hunterdon, and Vineland residential centers have a combined population of 1,238 residents. As of April 20, seven residents had died of COVID-19, and 113 (9%) had confirmed positive diagnoses. The death rate of 0.5% of the residential developmental disabilities population is 50 times greater than the statewide death rate.1,2

“Individuals in residential programs, both psychiatric and developmental, are among our most vulnerable and at-risk,” said Jennifer Thompson, MSW, Executive Director of the National Association of Social Workers – New Jersey Chapter. “We aren’t talking about this and we need to. The infection and death rates in these setting are 50-100 times higher than that of our general population,” Thompson continued. “Moreover, individuals in these settings often cannot be advocates for themselves, they rely on social workers, advocates and case managers to sound the alarms. That’s what we’re doing.” 

As of May 7, 2020, the NJ Department of Corrections reported the COVID-19 related deaths of 29 inmates among its population of 18,000. Another 8 deaths were reported among an estimated 450 involuntarily committed residents of the state’s Special Treatment Unit (STU). One hundred eighty-eight (1.1%) of the DOC inmate population and 14 (3.1%) of its resident population have confirmed positive diagnoses.

The death rate among inmates with confirmed diagnosis is 15.4% and among residents of the STU is 57%. Comparing this to the total population of inmates, the COVID-19 infection fatality rate of inmates is already at 0.16%, and 1.8% for the residents of the STU, or more than 10 times the rate in the State prisons.3 The NJ Department of Corrections’ death rate from COVID-19, based upon total population, is 16 times greater than the statewide rate; NJ Special Treatment Unit’s death rate due to COVID-19 is 180 times greater.

Recognizing the actual infection rate is likely much higher, the New Jersey Department of Corrections is in the process of testing all inmates and residents of the STU for the disease.

“To protect inmates and residents and effectively control the spread of this disease in institutional population, we need to immediately cease all admissions into and movement within prisons and institutions, except to hospitals due to a 911 emergency,” said Jeff Dickert, Ph.D., LCSW, former COO of Rutgers University Correctional Health Care. “As I understand it, the prisons and Juvenile Justice Commission are planning on testing every inmate and resident in the next week or two. Psychiatric hospitals and developmental disabilities centers need to be doing the same if they are not.”

Added Thompson, “NASW-NJ supports the recent steps taken by the NJ Department of Corrections and is calling for all residents in institutional settings in our State to be tested immediately and again whenever they exhibit symptoms of COVID-19. All inmates, residents and staff within these settings need to be provided with face masks and social distancing measures must continue to be strongly reinforced. Sadly, visitation cannot be permitted.”

“Anyone coming in close contact with residents must be provided full personal protective equipment (PPE) to limit exposure to the virus,” furthered Dickert. “Institutional settings must implement the same stringent infectious disease controls as in our hospitals. In addition, any resident who can safely be placed in a non-institutional setting should be moved.”

Now, more than ever, social workers in various settings throughout the state are vigilantly monitoring, supporting, and advocating for the most vulnerable. “Social workers are trained to identify emerging issues, research and compare critical data for trends, and advocate and affect change on behalf of their clients,” said Dawn Apgar, Ph.D., LSW, ACSW, Assistant Professor and  Assistant Chairperson of Seton Hall University’s Department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Social Work and former Deputy Commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Human Services. “Our education uniquely prepares our profession to respond to this crisis across the board.”

“NASW-NJ represents not only our members as professionals, but the hundreds of thousands of individuals they serve daily. Social workers across the state have shared with us harrowing stories of lack of PPE in these settings, stress on clients, and loss. The data we see only reaffirms their accounts,” said Thompson.

While many are advocating for relaxing the social distancing measures and other controls put in place to slow the spread of this disease, we must continue to be vigilant among our institutionalized populations lest these settings explode into the next virus hotbed. Anything less is not only short-sighted, but inhumane.

Contact: Jennifer Thompson, Executive Director
917-968-0181
[email protected]

Source: National Association of Social Workers