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Coronavirus Updates For Western New England: 13 Dead At Holyoke Soldiers' Home

Members of the National Guard load boxes of protective gear onto a cart at the Soldiers' Home in Holyoke, Massachusetts.
Jesse Costa
Members of the National Guard load boxes of protective gear onto a cart at the Soldiers' Home in Holyoke, Massachusetts.

The number of veterans who recently died at the Holyoke Soldiers' Home has climbed to 13, at least six of whom have tested positive for COVID-19, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker said Tuesday as he pledged to "figure out what happened" at the home.

The state-run facility that cares for a little more than 250 veterans was placed under the control of a new leader and a clinical command team Monday after Superintendent Bennett Walsh was put on paid administrative leave.

The mayor of Holyoke, Alex Morse, said Tuesday in a Facebook video that he got an anonymous tip Saturday morning about conditions and "the gravity of the situation" at the soldiers' home and then spoke with Walsh on Sunday, which was the first he learned about deaths at the facility.

"The superintendent let me know that there had been eight veteran deaths between Wednesday and Sunday without any public notification, without any notification to my office, and also just no notification to the state government that oversees this facility in the first place," Morse said. "If they followed guidelines, we would have been notified and we weren't."

Baker said Tuesday afternoon that he, Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito and Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders first learned of the situation at the soldiers' home Sunday night when they spoke with Morse.

"We will get to the bottom of what happened and when, and by who," the governor said. He said the state's priority right now is to stabilize the Holyoke Soldiers' Home and ensure the residents there are properly cared for.

"We will figure out what happened and we will deal with that," he said.

Tuesday afternoon, U.S. Rep. Richard Neal said he was shocked to learn of the deaths in Holyoke and that the news was "even more personal to me because I have an uncle who is a full-time resident there." Neal said he has spoken with Sudders and the Mass. Nurses Association "to share my concerns about the conditions at the home and to learn more about their plans to move forward."

Neal also said he plans to discuss the situation there with the governor directly.

"Simply put, there must be accountability for what happened in Holyoke," Neal said.

Massachusetts reports 33 news deaths — triple the previous high for a one-day period

Massachusetts officials report a big jump in the number of deaths attributable to COVID-19. They added 33 new deaths since Monday's report, bringing the total in the state to 89.

Eleven of the new deaths occurred in western Massachusetts. It's not clear how many are connected to the Holyoke Soldiers' Home, or whether some of the deaths at the facility were included on previous reports.

There are now 6,620 confirmed cases of the disease in Massachusetts, an increase of 868 from the day before.

Elsewhere in New England

Connecticut also reported 33 additional deaths. The state said the number includes 14 earlier COVID-19-related deaths reported to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, which were not previously included in state updates.

There are now 69 deaths in the state attributed to COVID-19, and 3,128 total cases.

Vermont's death total increased by one, to 13. The state on Tuesday reported a total of 293 cases.

The deaths in Rhode Island doubled from the previous daily report, and now stand at eight, with 488 cases.

Maine on Tuesday added two COVID-19 deaths to its total, which is now five. The state has 303 laboratory-confirmed cases.

New Hampshire on Tuesday did not announce any new deaths related to the coronavirus. Three people have died as a result of COVID-19 in the state, with 367 people testing positive.

Non-essential businesses in Mass. must stay closed through May 4

A week after closing all non-essential businesses to workers and customers, Gov. Charlie Baker said he was extending his executive order beyond April 7 to keep most businesses physically closed through at least May 4.

Baker on Tuesday afternoon said his order would also keep in place the social distancing guidance from the state limiting gatherings to no more than 10 people.

He said the state was considering taking steps to prevent people from gathering in parks and other public spaces, but urged people to follow the direction on their own.

Baker said continuing social distancing measures is necessary to slow the spread of the coronavirus as the state prepares for a surge in patients needing hospitalization that is projected to hit Massachusetts between April 7 and April 17.

To meet that need, the state will be turning the DCU Center in Worcester into a 250-bed medical facility to treat patients with lower acuity of symptoms. Baker said it is one of three field medical stations for which the state has requested approval from the federal government through the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency.

Three tractor trailers with the supplies necessary to set up the DCU Center beds will arrive in Worcester tomorrow, and UMass Medical Center will oversee the day-to-day operations of the field hospital.

Connecticut considering ways to keep more people home amid virus

Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont says he's considering narrowing the list of businesses considered essential in order to keep more people home. Lamont is predicting April will be a "horrible month" for coronavirus cases in Connecticut and says more needs to be done to persuade young people that social distancing is crucial to reducing the spread of the virus. There are more confirmed cases, including school workers in Waterbury and the president of Bristol Health. Mohegan Sun says it will remain closed, and mobile food pantries are closing in southeastern Connecticut. A UConn researcher has been awarded a grant to study behavior and attitudes toward COVID-19.

Vermont orders 14-day isolation for those arriving in state

The state of Vermont is ordering people who arrive in the state to quarantine themselves for 14 days to help reduce the risk of spreading the new coronavirus that causes COVID-19. The restrictions were contained in an order issued Monday by Gov. Phil Scott. They apply to both Vermonters and out-of-staters arriving for anything other than "an essential purpose."  The governor took the additional action after federal guidance that advised residents of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut to refrain from non-essential domestic travel for 14 days. As of Monday, Vermont was reporting more than 255 cases of COVID-19, up from 235 on Saturday. There have been 12 fatalities.

Massachusetts bill proposes food pantry relief fund

A recently filed House bill would create a $500 million emergency fund to help food pantries buy additional food and personal care items, hire extra staff or otherwise modify their operations during the COVID-19 outbreak. "Many families live paycheck-to-paycheck in the best of times. The coronavirus outbreak has furloughed many of those workers, and families are turning to food banks for help," Rep. Mindy Domb, the bill's sponsor, said in a statement. "The record-shattering claims for unemployment benefits indicate an additional need for emergency food for our neighbors, many of whom never needed food pantry services before." The House referred the bill (HD 4965) to its Rules Committee on Monday. Domb is the former executive director of the Amherst Survival Center, which runs a food pantry that serves 13 towns.

New Hampshire getting another $147M from virus aid package

New Hampshire's congressional delegation says the state is getting an additional $147 million from the massive coronavirus aid package signed into law by President Donald Trump. Funding will go to schools; public transit; health care workers; law enforcement; child care, heating assistance; elections help; and other areas. The biggest chunk, nearly $82.5 million, includes money for elementary and secondary schools; higher education; and the Governor's Emergency Education Relief Fund.

Also, Gov. Chris Sununu is asking the U.S. Health and Human Services Department to allow a group of rehabilitation hospitals in New Hampshire to care for non-rehabilitation patients during the coronavirus emergency.  

Crisis drives down gas prices

Gasoline prices in Massachusetts are down to $2.09 per gallon on average Tuesday, with 40 percent of stations selling self-serve gas for less than $2 per gallon, AAA Northeast announced in a press release. Prices have been dropping during the coronavirus pandemic with fewer drivers on the road, a global economic slowdown and what AAA described as a crude oil price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia. "AAA expects gas prices to keep dropping as cheap crude combines with the realities of people are staying home and less demand for gas," Mary Maguire, AAA Northeast Director of Public and Legislative Affairs, said in a press release. The national average gas price was $1.99 per gallon on Tuesday, the first time in four years it dipped below $2. Meanwhile, the average crude oil price hit its lowest level since 2002 at $20 per barrel, according to AAA.

NEPR's Heather Brandon and Sam Hudzik contributed to this report, which includes information from State House News Service and The Associated Press.

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