Governor launches investigation into Holyoke veterans home where 15 residents have died

BOSTON — Governor Charlie Baker has hired a lawyer to investigate the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home that was hit hard recently by the coronavirus.

The number of residents of the Massachusetts veterans home who have recently died is now 15, and six of those tested positive for the coronavirus, officials told Boston 25 News Wednesday.

“Today, an additional two veterans residing at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, and one resident of the Chelsea Soldiers’ Home, died - both testing positive for COVID-19. While every life lost to COVID-19 is a tragedy, these veterans lived long, full lives, and their service to our community will never be forgotten. To immediately stabilize the situation in Holyoke, new leadership has been installed and a clinical command group has been established to provide safe and appropriate care. A full investigation into what happened in Holyoke has been launched, starting today with the naming of Attorney Mark W. Pearlstein as the lead investigator into the matter. We cannot forget that these nursing and assisted living facilities are providing care to a vulnerable population of older residents, many of whom have underlying illnesses. The Chelsea Soldiers’ Home has consistently followed appropriate protocols regarding COVID-19 cases. Both facilities are intently focused on prioritizing veteran residents’ health during this outbreak.”

—  Brooke Karanovich, Executive Office of Health and Human Services

Test results for five other Holyoke Soldiers’ Home residents who have died are pending, one tested negative and the cause of one death remains unknown, according to a statement from the state Executive Office of Health and Human Services.

In addition, 10 other residents and seven employees have tested positive for the virus, and tests for 25 other residents are pending.

In response to the deaths, the superintendent of the home has been placed on administrative leave and a new a clinical command structure has been implemented. Medically trained National Guard personnel have been brought in to test all residents and staff for the virus.

“The investigation will focus both on the events inside the facility that led to the tragic deaths of veterans in the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, and on management and organizational oversight of the COVID-19 response in the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home,” the governor’s press release stated.

Holyoke's mayor said Tuesday that the administrator mismanaged the outbreak.

Mayor Alex Morse said the first deaths occurred last Wednesday, but officials at the home failed to disclose the deaths until Sunday. Morse said he'd called Bennett Walsh, the facility's then-superintendent, directly after receiving an anonymous complaint.

"I was incredibly disappointed," Morse said. "There was a clear lack of urgency and we were repeatedly told that these were folks with underlying health conditions. That's certainly not an excuse for not isolating the folks that did test positive."

The mayor also said he was concerned about the lack of urgency from the state Secretary of Veterans' Services Francisco Ureña, who Morse said also joined in Sunday's call at one point.

Walsh and Ureña didn't respond to calls and emails seeking comment.

Walsh was placed on leave Monday. Val Liptak, CEO of Western Massachusetts Hospital, was tapped to administer the facility.

The home has about 250 long term care beds and a separate 30-room residence for veterans who need less-intensive care. It was established in 1952.

Morse says since the news broke out, he’s been in touch with some of the heartbroken family members. Loved ones told Morse there has been a lack of communication with leadership at the facility about how their relatives were doing.

“Family members who haven’t heard from their family members, that live there for three days,” said Morse. “They try to call, no one has information for them.”

Morse says they all live in a small community where there are hometown hero banners, and pictures of veterans. The flags will remain at half staff to honor the heroes who served for our country.

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