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Former Deputy At Holyoke Soldiers' Home: 'We Should Be Better Than This'

In the past month, 52 residents of the Holyoke Soldiers' Home have died, testing positive for COVID-19. The quick spread of the coronavirus at the state-run facility for veterans has sparked three investigationsmost recently by the U.S. Department of Justice.

John Paradis is a retired lieutenant colonel in the Air Force. He's also the former deputy superintendent at the Soldiers' Home.

Paradis resigned in late 2015, and has publicly criticized a lack of state support for the home — and staffing levels in particular. Paradis said those are factors worth considering in this latest crisis.

John Paradis: During my tenure there, we went through an early retirement incentive plan that was put forth by the [Massachusetts Gov. Charlie] Baker administration, where in a very short timeframe, we lost a significant number of staff positions — to include a number of nursing staff, skilled nurses who had been in the state for several years, and were exceptional at what they do. And really, I don't know if the Soldiers' Home has ever recovered from that.

Kari Njiiri, NEPR: So what was your reaction to hearing of the recent deaths at the Soldiers' Home?

I think my first reaction was just this total and complete sense of terrible loss. I mean, I was just angry. I was overcome with tremendous sadness to hear about so many deaths, so many veterans, some of whom I'm finding out, now, had come to the home during my time there.

These are veterans who you just have the greatest level of respect and admiration for. And you just ask yourself, "How did this happen? How did we let this happen?"

And what gets me angry — and I know from some of the other veterans I've talked to since this terrible news broke — is that we should be better than this.

The Soldiers' Home in Holyoke should be the shining example of how a long-term care facility should be run. It should be the ideal. We shouldn't have to have debates about staffing issues, or having to get through a hiring freeze. And we shouldn't have to question why there are three veterans to a small room, and why they have to share a bathroom.

So you know, I ask: If you can't do this right, then what is wrong with us as a society? And I think that, to me, is what has been so frustrating and, frankly, very depressing about this.

The early retirement program you mentioned earlier, that led to this wave of departures at the Soldiers' Home: Do you think that played a part in what's happening in recent weeks?

When you look at staffing, and when you look at long-term care, overstretched staff members who make simple mistakes, such as failing to wash hands or wear appropriate protective equipment — you know, things like that you can't take for granted. And it can endanger everyone in a facility like the Soldiers' Home, where you have more than 200-plus residents in some very tight space.

So I am hopeful that the investigations that are in place are going to look at the staffing levels, and if the home was adequately prepared to confront the pandemic. I think staffing levels in particular are critical in any nursing home's fight against something like this. So yes, it does matter.

Can you say that it directly contributed to this outbreak? I definitely think it's an underlying factor that needs to be looked at in a serious and thoughtful way.

So what is unique about caring for veterans, as opposed to other elderly patients?

Well, to answer that question, you have to look at similarities first. So the residents there are — by the very fact that they're at the Soldiers' Home — are at a very high risk due to their age, documented poor health, many of them already have compromised immune systems. The vast majority rely on a care provider for the activities of daily living.

And then, on top of all this, you have levels of dementia and behavioral health — which among veterans is higher, with post-traumatic stress, depression, anxiety issues. There's also such things as exposures to environmental public health hazards during war, such as Agent Orange or other herbicides.

You know, one of the things that is certainly unique and different about a facility like the Soldiers' Home is that you are going to meet veterans who were at the Normandy landings at D-Day, who stormed the beaches in the Pacific. They were on ships at sea during the Pacific theater. You know, I met veterans there who were in Korea. And now, more and more, you're seeing the Vietnam-era veterans coming in, who have been in some of the bloodiest firefights in Vietnam.

So what does that mean? It means that there are some end-of-life and palliative and hospice care differences with veterans who have experienced great trauma in their lives. And they're looking for closure, and they're looking for people that are going to listen to them.

And they want to know that what they did had purpose and meaning. There's that uniqueness to the Soldiers' Home which makes what we're facing now that much more distressing and hard, I think, for so many people and family members to bear witness to.

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