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Regional News

Employees Unions At Holyoke Soldiers' Home Say Staff Were Denied More PPE

Two labor unions representing workers at the Holyoke Soldiers' Home said requests for access to more personal protective gear were denied by management as a deadly COVID-19 outbreak began in the state-run facility for veterans.

As of Tuesday, there had been 13 recent deaths at the home – at least six attributable to the virus.

Representatives for both the Massachusetts Nurses Association and SEIU 888 said on a number occasions, they pleaded with Bennett Walsh, the superintendent of the Soldiers’ Home, to distribute more protective equipment to staff working directly with residents.

"When he basically said he was viewing this more as a marathon and needed to sustain them over a period of time, we explained that to flatten the curve, you really need to protect your caregivers and your patients now," said Andrea Fox, a registered nurse and associate director of labor with the Massachusetts Nurses Association.

Brenda Rodrigues, who is the president of the SEIU local, said one staffer who pushed back against management was reprimanded for inciting fear amongst employees when "he was just asking for the basic, standard safety equipment that is needed in this kind of situation.”

Both Rodrigues and Fox said they were shocked to find out about the worsening situation at the Soldiers’ Home. Rodrigues said management's response to the outbreak was almost unbelievable.

“You look at what the truth is, and — for me — I was having a real difficult time trying to even think that management wouldn't take something like this so seriously," Rodrigues said. "Then you start to wonder, 'Is this really true or not?'"

The superintendent, Walsh, has since been placed on administrative leave, and could not be reached for comment.

State officials have installed new leadership at the Holyoke facility. Other steps have been taken, including testing all residents and staff for COVID-19, as well as bringing in the National Guard for support.

At a press conference Tuesday, Governor Charlie Baker said, in the short-term, “our primary focus is going to be on stabilizing and supporting the health and safety of the residents and their families.”

“We will get to the bottom of what happened and when," Baker said, pausing. "And by who."

But with Massachusetts officials consumed by the deepening spread of COVID-19 across the state, it may be a while before those questions are answered.

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