25 Investigates: ‘Families left in the dark’ as veterans die amid botched COVID-19 response

HOLYOKE, Mass. — Families with loved ones living at the Soldiers Home in Holyoke are struggling to get information, 25 Investigates has learned.

So far, 59 veterans tested positive for coronavirus there and 25 have died.

Boston 25 News also heard from two staff members of the home who believe the deaths of these local veterans could have been prevented.

“I think it’s criminal what they’re doing, that the families are left out in the dark,” Westfield resident Susan Regensburger said.

She says for more than a week, it’s been a painstaking process to get any information about her 99-year-old dad, John MacKay.

The World War II veteran has been a resident of the Holyoke Soldiers Home about three years, a largely positive experience that has unraveled since mid-March when the first case of coronavirus was reported at the home.

“They eat in a common area. So, I wanted to know what they were doing to prevent the spread of it,” Regensburger explained.

She said, at first, she was assured her father, who turns 100 in May, was feeling well, in good spirits, and kept away from any sick residents.

But as the number of COVID-19 cases grew and residents started dying, Regensburger said getting information became a struggle.

Not only were residents getting sick, so were members of the staff.

A nurse at the Holyoke Soldiers Home, who agreed to speak with us on the condition of anonymity, says several staff members questioned management’s response and voiced concerns from the beginning.

“As people became positive and staff became sick, we had to combine units for staffing problems, which caused greater concern for spread of the virus,” the nurse told Boston 25 News.

But the nurse says they weren’t given clear answers on how to respond to the growing crisis.

In fact, a letter obtained by 25 Investigates shows the union, which represents 270 employees at the facility, demanded to know on March 17 what the Holyoke Soldiers Home is doing to ‘ensure our membership’s safety,’ including ‘cleaning and sanitizing measures’ and ‘closures of buildings or departments.’

“We all verbalized they’re unsafe taking 25 veterans from upstairs and moving them downstairs to a unit that was set up and designed to only hold 25 veterans, now held 41,” the nurse said. “So, veterans were being placed closer together, instead of distancing.”

Another employee, nursing assistant Erin Saykin, says as the virus struck, staff was working without proper protective equipment.

“They were fully aware. They could have better prepared themselves. They kept telling some staff people this is just like the common flu, it’s no biggie,” Saykin said. “Disregard for human life, both staff and veterans alike.”

Saykin tested positive for coronavirus.

Susan Regensburger learned on Friday her father had also tested positive.

She says she has been calling the new family hotline or the home’s front desk for updates, but getting no response.

“I’m just devastated,” Regesnburger said. “I’m helpless, I’m frustrated. I just can’t do anything.”

She says the last time they spoke, her dad was struggling to breathe. That was the middle of last week.

She says she received a photo showing only curtains separating him from three other COVID-19 positive patients in the same room.

On Monday afternoon, she had her father transferred out of the home and into a hospital.

Regensburger says her biggest fear is that her father will die alone.

“He shouldn’t. He should be able to celebrate his 100th birthday,” she said. “We’re praying for a miracle.”

Over the weekend, the union filed a class-action grievance with the state requesting that the remaining top administrators at the home be placed on leave for their role in “endangering the health and safety of everyone in the building.”

The Massachusetts Department of Health and Human Services told Boston 25 News a clinical team comprised of a nurse case manager and care coordinators has been deployed to provide immediate support for family communications at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home.

The support is being provided by Behavioral Health Network and Riverside Community Care and was established in coordination with the National Association of Social Workers - MA Chapter. This additional support for family communication is to support the work that is being done at Holyoke to keep veterans’ families apprised.

More details on what’s unfolded in Holyoke:

  • One week ago Monday, the state placed the person who ran the soldiers home, Superintendent Bennett Walsh on administrative leave
  • The National Guard set up a mobile testing site to test all residents and staff in Holyoke
  • Governor Charlie Bakers has asked a former federal prosecutor to conduct an independent investigation into what went wrong there

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