25 Investigates: Families fighting for new Holyoke Soldiers’ Home 1 year after deadly outbreak

BOSTON — It was a year ago a devastating outbreak of COVID-19 began spreading at the Holyoke Soldiers Home. At least 76 veterans died after testing positive for the virus.

The crisis led to three separate investigations. Anchor and investigative reporter Kerry Kavanaugh has been following the story since the beginning and reconnected with some of the families one year later.

“I think of him all the time, I haven’t taken a sign off my front yard yet. We still haven’t spread his ashes,” said Susan Kenney speaking of her dad, Charles Lowell.

Lowell served in the U.S. Air Force during the Vietnam War and then lived a life of service. The Holyoke Soldiers’ Home was where he was supposed to spend his final years peacefully. But, in March 2020, a COVID-19 outbreak and the response to it led to weeks of chaos and enormous loss, as was revealed in multiple investigations.

“I don’t care if they’re in their 80s and 90s […] their life expectancy, you know, isn’t much longer,” Kenney said. “They need all the care that they are entitled to being there.”

Lowell was 78 when he died on April 15. He was one of at least 76 veterans who died after testing positive for the virus.

“It’s unfortunate and tragic and it never should have happened,” Kenney said, adding that one way to prevent history from repeating itself is with construction of a new home, something family members have been fighting for on Beacon Hill.

“We will never let them forget what happened,” said Cheryl Turgeon. “And building a new home becomes part of that.”

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Turgeon’s dad, Dennis Thresher, a Korean War veteran, was very sick last spring. Turgeon said he lost 30 pounds, had multiple fevers and pneumonia. But he never tested positive for the virus; he did however test positive for the COVID-19 antibodies months later.

Thresher died in January at the age of 90.

“I blame COVID for reducing his immune system,” Turgeon said. “You know, making him a shell of a man that he was.”

In honor of Thresher and Lowell and all the lives lost, families want state lawmakers to support a $400 million bond bill introduced by Gov. Charlie Baker earlier this year. It would fund the construction of a new home. Families believe a new modern facility with proper infection control standards will save lives.

“I wanted my dad to be peaceful and go out gracefully. And that just didn’t happen, even at the end,” Turgeon said. “I know he wanted to stay, but I had to let them go.”

“It can’t, it can’t happen again. It shouldn’t happen in the first place,” Kenney said.

The bond bill for the funding of the new Holyoke Soldiers’ Home cleared one big legislative vote last week. But the clock is ticking.

There is an April 15 deadline to get the bond passed to get 65% of the cost reimbursed by the federal government, according to state Senator John Velis of Western Massachusetts.

“What is most important is that DCAMM [Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance] has enough time for the design process, as they cannot start until this bill is signed,” Velis said in a statement. “I am confident DCAMM will meet these time constraints, but we need to continue to push this bill through in the next two weeks.”

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