For much of the United States, January 2021 was the darkest hour of the COVID-19 pandemic, with hundreds of thousands of new cases per week and millions desperate to claim a vaccine that was in extremely short supply.
But for a group of people with connections to New Standard Senior Living of New Jersey, getting the shot proved easy. The senior housing company had priority access to the coronavirus vaccine, and a company executive invited her fellow executives, the housing developers behind the company’s newest building project, owners of the construction company on that project, and back office staff to get a vaccine — and to bring friends and family.
On Jan. 21, the company vaccinated more than 150 people, many of whom had no routine interactions with long-term care residents or even jobs in the health care field. The location was a still under-construction senior housing complex in Millville, New Jersey, where there were no residents or senior staff. And a majority of those receiving shots wound up being the construction workers who were racing to bring the company’s new 154-unit senior living community to completion.
“People came down from New York. It was bad,” said Rebecca Beaver, a former New Standard employee who was vaccinated that day; New Standard required all employees to be vaccinated. “Hundreds of people got their vaccines this way. Hundreds.”
New Standard had early access to the vaccines because it was a CVS COVID vaccine distribution partner, part of a program set up to ensure that the vulnerable residents of long-term care facilities and front-line health care staff had priority access to a vaccine. CVS supplied and administered the vaccines but left it up to individual long-term care facilities to enroll people and check their eligibility, a CVS spokesperson said.
New Standard’s vaccination clinics took place exceptionally early in the vaccine rollout when even some members of the U.S. Supreme Court and Congress had not received their first doses.
Throughout the month of January, New Jersey was still allocating virtually every shipment it received from the federal government to just two types of sites: community vaccination sites for front-line health care workers, and long-term care facilities. The state had expanded eligibility on Jan. 15 to police, firefighters, people 65 and older, and people with a very short list of serious preexisting conditions.
But New Jersey was experiencing one of the slowest rollouts in the country. By the week ending Jan. 24 — the week New Standard held its first vaccination clinic — New Jersey had administered just 568,065 doses, not even enough to cover the state’s 650,000 health care workers. Not until April did the state stop holding dedicated vaccination clinics in assisted living facilities, a state spokesperson said.
Did you talk to your families about coming in as employees to get the vaccine?
A New Standard Senior Living executive organizing a vaccine drive
Pharmacies and state and federal health agencies were avoiding onerous eligibility checks to make sure shots were going in arms. But the honor system left the vaccine rollout prone to inequitable distribution. Just a few days after New Standard held its first vaccination clinic, nearby Hunterdon County Hospital was caught offering doses of the vaccine to wealthy donors and their young adult children. Hunterdon said those were leftover doses it didn’t want to waste.
Emails and texts show the New Standard clinics were not giving out leftover or expiring doses.
“Please let me know if you would like the vaccine as I am taking a head count” for the Jan. 21 event, Lisa Kelly, a senior vice president at New Standard, wrote on Jan. 12 to the developers, executives, construction company employees and administrative staff.
That same day, she texted administrative employees to ask, “Did you talk to your families about coming in as employees to get the vaccine?” In a follow-up message, she instructed one employee to “list your husband as an employee.”
A few days before the Jan. 21 vaccination clinic, Kelly told attendees the clinic had moved to accommodate more than 100 construction workers, and that four hours of the six-hour vaccination event were set aside for the construction crews.
As she planned the company’s second clinic, on Feb. 6, Kelly once again emailed developers, construction company owners and executives, asking “if you or someone you know has interest in attending.” At no point in her invitation did she mention the state’s still-narrow eligibility requirements.
HuffPost obtained emails and texts about the planning of the vaccination clinics from Beaver, a former New Standard employee who worked in a compliance role before quitting earlier this year. New Standard has not disputed that the communications are authentic.
New Standard Senior Living owns and operates three assisted living facilities for low-income seniors in New Jersey. Its chair and president, Drew Barile, also runs Noble Senior Services, a troubled elder care provider with operations across the South and Midwest that have racked up a string of alarming safety violations.
A HuffPost investigation in June found that one of the country’s largest owners of senior housing, CareTrust, had chosen Noble to take over care for hundreds of seniors despite knowing about Noble’s checkered safety record. At a facility it runs in Indiana, state inspectors have substantiated 56 health and safety complaints since Noble took over, including complaints about missing medication and COVID-19 safety violations. Inspectors who visited a Pensacola, Florida, senior home earlier this year found trash and foul odors.
Still, in the throes of the pandemic, CareTrust let Noble take over five additional assisted living facilities. CareTrust executives got a bonus, in part because the move helped preserve profits.
Noble broadly chalked up the safety violations to the challenges posed by the pandemic, the inherent difficulties of serving low-income seniors, and missteps made by former operators.
Within weeks of that story, Noble’s CEO, Lorne Schechter, was no longer with the company. Noble would not comment on the circumstances of his departure and Schechter did not respond to an interview request.
Anybody we were in close contact with, we wanted to protect them too.
Rebecca Beaver, former New Standard employee
But Barile, the president and chair of both Noble and New Standard, strongly denied that New Standard’s vaccination clinics had bent or broken any rules.
“We constitutionally feel we tried our best to help humanity fight a deadly pandemic and we negate the allegations as either malicious and or unfounded,” he wrote in an email. “We felt honored to assist the state with all our ability to help quell the horrific pandemic which claimed so many lives. We are quite proud to have helped as many people as we could.”
Barile did not respond directly to questions about whether New Standard had given executives and investors’ friends and family members an open invitation for an early vaccine. He acknowledged that New Standard had vaccinated executives, saying they constantly visit their facilities; developers, noting they are formally company employees; and family members of employees.
Barile claimed the construction workers were eligible because they were contractors of a long-term care company and “worked in a health care setting” — building unoccupied eldercare units — and besides, New Jersey had allowed the construction of those units to go forward, “so yes many workers were inoculated.” (New Jersey did say that contractors of health care companies were in the first vaccination priority group — but only by way of clarifying that all front-line health care workers were in that first group, whether they were full-time, contractors or volunteers.)
Many New Standard employees, including Beaver, had asked for their loved ones to be vaccinated, he said.
As for anyone else who attended the company’s vaccination clinics, “I am neither aware of the classification of all the invitees nor their origination,” Barile said, but in general, he called HuffPost’s description of the crowd “inaccurate and spurious.”
“I will simply say New Standard did not engage in any chicanery nor facilitate any misrepresentation,” he said.
Several of the emails HuffPost viewed speak to the company’s frustration that coronavirus exposures were constantly slowing down various parts of their business.
“I can’t keep closing this office down it is getting ridiculous,” Kelly texted Beaver and one of her co-workers shortly after one of them had a virus scare. If anyone else missed work because of a COVID-19 exposure, Kelly threatened, they would not get any paid time off. “There is no more time to be had sitting at home.”
Beaver’s husband was one of the friends and family vaccinated at that Jan. 21 clinic. She jumped at the chance for them both to be vaccinated, she said, because she and her co-workers were working in unsafe conditions. For most of the fall, she worked alongside three other people in a small construction site trailer at the site of New Standard’s newest housing facility, she said. After three of the four workers contracted COVID-19, the company moved them into the still-under-construction building. Beaver asked for permission to work from home, but that was never permitted, according to emails HuffPost viewed.
“Anybody we were in close contact with, we wanted to protect them too,” Beaver said.
New Standard claimed the trailer had plenty of room for multiple people to work and that Beaver had a private office available in another administrative building.
A lawsuit filed in June by one of Beaver’s former co-workers over the working conditions at the construction site claimed it had no bathrooms, running water, ventilation or sprinkler system. After Beaver’s co-worker, Christy Musey, complained to the state, Barile filed a public records request with the state’s department of labor in order to see the complaint, the lawsuit said — a molehunt.
“The complaint, it appears to be internal,” Barile wrote in an email HuffPost viewed. “They agreed to process my online [records] request immediately to get the source origination information.”
New Standard retaliated against Musey for several months until she could no longer work there and quit, her suit claims.
Barile did not respond to the claims in the lawsuit, but he said the intent of his public records request was to see the content of the complaint.
“The idea to track down an employee who may have made [the] complaint was not even considered at the time,” he said.