Employees at Holyoke Soldiers’ Home told to return to work — even if they test positive for COVID-19

HOLYOKE, Mass. — Staff members of the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home continue to have concerns about their personal safety. Now, 25 Investigates has obtained a copy of a memo telling those staff members to return work if they’re well enough, even if they test positive for the coronavirus.

Workers who spoke with Boston 25 News called it a dangerous policy.

“I just had this overwhelming heat come over me and a cough,” said Carmen Rivera, a certified nurse’s aide at the home. “I took my temperature, [it was] really high.”

Rivera said she got really sick on the job on March 18. She had been directly caring for a veteran resident who contracted COVID-19 and she says she was doing so without proper protective gear. Rivera spent a week in the hospital.

“My husband ended up in the hospital very ill,” Rivera went on to say. “My daughter-in-law and my son, which have [18-month-old] triplets got really ill. My sister, my daughter-in-law’s family ended up in the hospital.

“The whole family got sick! Everyone got sick.”

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Rivera has been unable to work ever since. But 25 Investigates learned workers are being told to report to work at the soldiers’ home even if they test positive for COVID-19.

The memo contains a “COVID test results action chart," which says employees with positive test results, without symptoms, should return to work.

"I think that’s scary because my husband is compromised and thinking I have to eventually go back to work,” Rivera said. “Can I get sick again? Can I get compromised again? I have to risk my health and my family."

The union representing the workers gave the following statement to Boston 25 News:

“This goes against every ounce of medical advice we are hearing from every other source and is causing additional stress among our members. Our members must be given the proper amount of time to recover before they’re being mandated to return to work if we want to prevent the spread of COVID-19.”

"I can't say I've seen that chart," said Marylou Sudders, the Secretary of Health and Human Services in Massachusetts. "The guidance generally is you test positive, you should stay out of work for a period of time. And then, if you are asymptomatic, you can come back to work with protective gear, masks and the like."

The chart doesn’t specify any amount of time away from work for asymptomatic workers.

The state Office of Health and Human Services told 25 Investigates that the return to work guidance being used by the Holyoke Soldiers Home is based on Centers For Disease Control and Prevention guidelines that allow health care providers who have tested positive for coronavirus, but do not have any symptoms, to only work with patients who are also positive.

“We’re on the frontlines there,” Rivera said. “We’re risking our health. They don’t. They’re not upfront taking care of those people getting exposed. We are!”

Rivera and several staff members told Boston 25 News that they voiced concerns from the beginning. They still don't feel heard.

“I believe that in my heart that if one person would have listened to what we were saying, half of this wouldn’t be happening right now," Rivera said.

More than two dozen residents of the Holyoke Soldiers Home have died since March. A source told Boston 25 News that, as of Monday, 46 staffers tested positive for COVID-19.