Holyoke Soldiers’ Home revises policy of bringing COVID-positive employees back to work

A family member of one of the residents who died from COVID-19 at a living facility for veterans says she welcomes an investigation into the facility's practices and how they let something like this happen.

HOLYOKE, Mass. — The Holyoke Soldiers’ Home has revised its policy requiring all employees to return to work – even if they’ve tested positive for COVID-19 – after employees raised the alarm earlier this week, 25 Investigates has learned.

On Tuesday, we told you workers were asked to return to work no matter what, provided they were feeling well enough.

On Thursday, the home offered some clarity, issuing a memo to employees saying they should only return 7 days after the positive tests if they are asymptomatic.

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As of Wednesday, 68 staff members at the Soldiers’ Home contracted coronavirus.

More than two dozen residents of the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home have died since March.

Now, the facility is under the command of a new staff and the National Guard is also on hand to assist.

The home and the actions of its former superintendent Bennet Walsh are under investigation by an independent attorney hired by the governor’s office and Attorney General Maura Healey’s office.

Bennett Walsh released the following statement Thursday:

Governor Baker has initiated a full review of my actions as Superintendent of the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home. I am cooperating with this investigation and thus far I have been interviewed on two occasions by investigators. I am committed to full participation in the process.

There have been widespread reports in the media that state officials were kept in the dark about what was happening at the Soldiers’ Home during the Covid-19 crisis. These reports are false.

We provided updates on a daily basis, sometimes multiple times a day. These updates were by phone, text, email, conference calls and official report forms. These updates were made at various times to the staffs of the Secretary of Veteran Services (DVS), the Executive office of Health and Human Services (EOHH)and the Department of Public Health(DPH).

Specifically, as of Friday afternoon March 27, we had notified state officials that:

: 28 veterans had exhibited symptoms of the coronavirus and samples had been collected and sent for testing

: these 28 veterans were living in different locations

: test results for 13 had been received

: 10 veterans were positive and 3 were negative

: test results for 15 veterans were pending

: 2 veterans had died; 1 with a positive test result and 1 with test results pending.

Events were happening rapidly and these statistics were again updated in the early evening when the test result for the second veteran who had died was determined to be positive. There were now 2 confirmed coronavirus related deaths.

The first veteran who showed symptoms resided in North 1. The first veteran who died with a confirmed positive resided in North 2. These veterans were on different floors and physically separated from each other. It was clear that the virus was not confined to one area but was infecting veterans throughout the facility and our medical resources were stretched to the limit.

At mid-day Friday March 27 I requested that National Guard medical personnel be sent to the Soldiers’ Home to assist our staff. That request was denied.

We also notified state officials that we were in a crisis mode regarding staff shortages. 25 % of the workforce was not reporting to work. These work shortages, and the knowledge that our veterans were extremely vulnerable to the virus, were taking a toll on the staff who had reported for duty. I requested trained grief support counselors to assist our staff who were dealing with the hardest hit units.

The staff shortage was so acute, and the number of Veterans with known or suspected Covid-19 so large, that the medical staff was forced to close some areas and place these men in the same unit. This action to “cohort” the veterans was reviewed with the Department of Public Health on Wednesday March 25 and accomplished on Friday March 27.

Between Friday night and Sunday morning 6 more veterans died bringing the total number of deaths to eight. By Sunday afternoon we had determined that 4 deaths were positive for the coronavirus and 4 deaths had test results still pending. The delay in getting test results was frustrating to all. This information was reported to state officials on Sunday afternoon at about 4:30 pm.

It is very disappointing to me that during this time of unspeakable horror the staffs at EOHH, DVS and DPH have remained silent and have let the lie that they didn’t know what was going on persist.

State officials knew that Holyoke needed as much help as possible. No one was kept in the dark.

It is gut-wrenching to observe the devastation the virus has caused my fellow veterans. These are men I helped to care for with affection and respect. I again express my sincere sympathy to their families.