Suspended Superintendent Says He Flagged Problems At Holyoke Soldiers' Home
The suspended superintendent of the Holyoke Soldiers' Home, where more than two dozen veterans have died amid a coronavirus outbreak, pushed back Thursday on Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker's suggestion that the home did not properly inform his administration about the issues there.
Bennett Walsh was placed on paid administrative leave and the facility put in the hands of an outside administrator and a clinical command team last Monday after the deaths of 11 residents became public. The governor and Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse previously suggested that Walsh and the Holyoke home did not inform the state of problems there until it was too late, and on Wednesday the governor said there was a "lack of follow-through on standard protocols with respect to reporting" at the Holyoke Soldiers' Home.
In a two-page statement released through an attorney Thursday, Walsh detailed the instances in which he said he informed the state of veterans showing symptoms of COVID-19 and was denied assistance by the administration.
"There have been widespread reports in the media that state officials were kept in the dark about what was happening at the Soldiers' Home during the Covid-19 crisis. These reports are false," Walsh said in his statement. "We provided updates on a daily basis, sometimes multiple times a day. These updates were by phone, text, email, conference calls and official report forms. These updates were made at various times to the staffs of the Secretary of Veteran Services (DVS), the Executive office of Health and Human Services(EOHH)and the Department of Public Health(DPH)."
The Baker administration said Thursday it was aware of Walsh's statement but did not offer a response or make any official available to discuss it.
Baker has tapped Mark Pearlstein, a former first assistant U.S. attorney, to conduct an investigation of the Holyoke Soldiers' Home "and the events that led to the recent tragic deaths from COVID-19 within that facility," and Walsh said he has spoken twice with investigators.
Attorney General Maura Healey on Wednesday launched her own probe of the situation.
The governor on Wednesday said he welcomed Healey's investigation and defended his administration's steps to get a handle on the situation in Holyoke.
"Since we were notified two Sundays ago at about nine o'clock at night about the situation there, we moved quickly to install a new management team and a command center at the site the following morning, and since then have tested all residents, all employees, and have established, with the help of Holyoke Medical Center, a COVID facility for many of the residents who tested positive at Holyoke Soldiers' Home and continue to pursue reforms with respect to care, isolation and infectious disease control," he said.
In his statement, Walsh said that he had been in touch with Baker's administration about COVID-19 symptoms and veteran deaths several days before the Sunday night that Baker said was the first he learned of the problems in Holyoke.
The first contact between the Holyoke Soldiers' Home and the administration mentioned by date in Walsh's statement came on Wednesday, March 27, when a plan to put veterans with known or suspected COVID-19 in the same unit because of a staff shortage was reviewed with DPH, Walsh said.
The first veteran to show COVID-19 symptoms lived in the "North 1" section of the home and the first veteran who died after testing positive lived in "North 2," Walsh said.
"These veterans were on different floors and physically separated from each other. It was clear that the virus was not confined to one area but was infecting veterans throughout the facility and our medical resources were stretched to the limit," the suspended superintendent said.
At noontime Friday, March 27, Walsh said he requested that National Guard medical personnel be sent to the Soldiers' Home to help his staff.
"That request was denied," Walsh wrote in his statement.
As of that Friday afternoon, Walsh said he had "notified state officials that: 28 veterans had exhibited symptoms of the corona virus and samples had been collected and sent for testing; these 28 veterans were living in different locations; test results for 13 had been received; 10 veterans were positive and 3 were negative; test results for 15 veterans were pending; 2 veterans had died; 1 with a positive test result and 1 with test results pending."
Later that same day, when test results for the second veteran who had died came back positive for COVID-19, Walsh said he updated the numbers he had given state officials to reflect the second veteran death from COVID-19.
"We also notified state officials that we were in a crisis mode regarding staff shortages. 25 % of the workforce was not reporting to work," Walsh said in his statement. "These work shortages, and the knowledge that our veterans were extremely vulnerable to the virus, were taking a toll on the staff who had reported for duty. I requested trained grief support counselors to assist our staff who were dealing with the hardest hit units."
Six more veterans died between Friday and Sunday morning, Walsh said. The fact that four of the deceased veterans had tested positive for COVID-19 and that the results for four more were still pending "was reported to state officials on Sunday afternoon at about 4:30 pm," Walsh said.
"It is very disappointing to me that during this time of unspeakable horror the staffs at EOHH, DVS and DPH have remained silent and have let the lie that they didn't know what was going on persist," Walsh wrote. "State officials knew that Holyoke needed as much help as possible. No one was kept in the dark."
In addition to at least 25 deaths at the home in Holyoke -- the Baker administration has not responded to requests for updated numbers each of the last two days -- at least five veterans have died at the state-run Chelsea Soldiers' Home, Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders said Tuesday. She and Baker have said that they do not expect the situation in Chelsea to deteriorate as it appears to have in Holyoke.
"I don't think that we're looking at the possibility of another Holyoke in Chelsea, no, I don't," the governor said last week, adding that the Chelsea facility "followed all the rules and protocols that they are supposed to follow."
Among the veterans who live at the Holyoke Soldiers' Home is an uncle of U.S. Rep. Richard Neal. Neal said on WGBH Radio on Thursday that he has talked "extensively" with Baker and Sudders about the situation at the home.
The congressman told co-hosts Jim Braude and Margery Eagan on Thursday that his uncle, who served in the Korean War and with whom Neal lived for a time, has contracted the virus.
"He's OK. He does have the virus, but he's OK at the moment," Neal said. "He's 90 years old and tough as nails."