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Regional News

'There Should Be Accountability Once The Dust Settles' At Holyoke Soldiers' Home

This week, the extent of the COVID-19 outbreak at the Holyoke Soldiers' Home became clearer. 

The numbers change daily, but many veterans who have recently died at the state-run facility tested positive for the new coronavirus, and there are many more who are fighting it.

Since the outbreak became public, employee unions representing workers at the Soldiers' Home have spoken out. Some say they pleaded with then-Superintendent Bennett Walsh to make more available more personal protective gear available.

"[Walsh] basically said he was viewing this more as a marathon, and needed to sustain them over a period of time," said Andrea Fox of the Massachusetts Nurses Association. "We explained that to flatten the curve, you really need to protect your caregivers and your patients now."

State officials moved quickly to put Walsh on leave, and bring in new leadership and more resources. Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker also announced he's launching an investigation.

Panelist Larry Parnass underscored the idea that state officials are responsible for everything that happens at the Soldiers' Home, as a state-run institution.

"I actually think that given the prevalence of this disease in many residential health care settings, like nursing homes, there ought to be some oversight there, too," Parnass said. "And I know that's different, because those are not managed by the state — those are often privately run, or run by nonprofits. But I think there should be accountability once the dust settles here, and people who didn't provide proper care really should be held to account."

State officials in particular seemed blindsided this week by how much the virus had spread at the facility.

"To think that the governor, the secretary and administration didn't know what was going on, as a state-run facility, it's disconcerting," said state Rep. Aaron Vega of Holyoke, who noted that he heard a rumor about what was happening from a staff member at the home.

Panelist Kristin Palpini said, though, she's not surprised top state officials weren't keeping better tabs on things.

"There's so much to pay attention to in the state," Palpini said. "I'm not surprised that something in western Massachusetts fell through the cracks. But I agree with Larry that there needs to be accountability here. This shouldn't have happened. We made a pledge to take care of our veterans, and we need to keep that."

"There's something particular about the Holyoke Soldiers' Home that is, in and of itself, really galling here," Parnass added, "just for what Kristin says — that these are people who have served the country, and this is not what should have happened to them."

As the pandemic continues, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has been weighing whether to let some people incarcerated in the state be reviewed for potential release to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in jails and prisons. A ruling released Friday afternoon says risks associated with COVID-19 warrant potential release:

To decrease exposure to COVID-19 within correctional institutions, any individual who is not being held without bail under G. L. c. 276, § 58A, and who has not been charged with an excluded offense (i.e., a violent or serious offense enumerated in Appendix A to this opinion) is entitled to a rebuttable presumption of release. The individual shall be ordered released pending trial on his or her own recognizance, without surety, unless an unreasonable danger to the community would result, or the individual presents a very high risk of flight.
The special master previously appointed by this court in conjunction with this case will work at the county level with each relevant court to facilitate these hearings.

Supporters of early release have said they believe having fewer people in a confined space will protect inmates from the virus. Others question whether early release of prisoners could itself be a public safety risk.

And while most in New England are either being urged or ordered to stay home as much as possible, officials have been encouraging exercise — but not in groups. There's been crowding in parks and trails, among other places, and that has led to some closures. Golf courses in Massachusetts have been deemed as non-essential businesses, although that didn't apparently stop some from hitting the links at Springfield's public closure  — drawing the ire of Mayor Domenic Sarno

Guests: 

  • Larry Parnass, investigations editor , The Berkshire Eagle
  • Kristin Palpini, veteran western Mass. journalist

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NEPR's Heather Brandon contributed to this post.

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