HOLYOKE (CBS) – Mayor Alex Morse said on Tuesday a lack of proper isolation during the coronavirus outbreak and overcrowding led to 13 deaths at Holyoke Soldiers’ Home for veterans. Morse said he was “completely shocked” when he heard from the facility, which hadn’t communicated with the city or state about the deaths.
Facility superintendent Bennett Walsh was placed on administrative leave on Monday after the deaths, which have occurred since last Wednesday.
Six of the veterans who died tested positive for coronavirus. Test results are pending for five others, one was negative and the cause of death is unknown for one.
In addition, 10 veteran residents and seven staff members tested positive for coronavirus. Every staff member and resident has since been tested, but results are pending for 25 residents.
Morse said the first death was reported Wednesday and several others were reported to the Board of Health on Friday. The Board of Health reached out to the facility on Saturday but did not receive a response.
“We’ve been aware and lodging complaints with managers there for like two weeks,” said Brenda Rodriguez who’s with the Service Employees International Union 888.
“you put on a personal protection equipment without permission…” This is a disciplinary letter a nurse’s aid received when he demanded masks after a resident he cares for tested positive in the Holyoke Soldiers Home for veterans. #wbz pic.twitter.com/MghKatJfII
— Christina Hager (@HagerWBZ) March 31, 2020
A nurse’s aide, who wants to remain anonymous, showed WBZ a disciplinary letter the aide got for demanding protective gear after a veteran showed COVID-19 symptoms. The letter said the aide was “disruptive” and “inappropriate.”
It went on, “You put on a personal protection equipment without permission or need.” Rodriguez said the aide simply “asked for protective gear to be able to service that veteran.” She said the aide’s supervisor said the aide “was acting and causing fear within the home.”
“I’m angry,” the worker told WBZ. “When you suspect somebody who has COVID-19, you’re supposed to take that person out of that particular setting, and put (them) in isolation…They left the person in the same area.”
The mayor said he received anonymous information about improper conditions at the home. Morse reached out to Walsh on Sunday, and learned there had been eight deaths at that point.
“We were just completely shocked,” Morse said. “Number one that it had happened. Number two that there was no communication between the facility and the city, nor any communication between the facility and the state that oversees this facility in the first place.”
During his conversation with Bennett, Morse said he asked how the facility was planning to communicate with family members and the public, and did not receive clear answers.
“Quite honestly there was almost no sense of urgency in that conversation,” Morse said.
That was when Morse reached out to Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration. Morse said he heard back from Health and Human Services secretary Marylou Sudders within 30 minutes.
“As someone who has visited this amazing place on multiple occasions, and found it to be a source of joy and grace and comfort and kindness, for the residents, their families, and the staff that works there, this episode is a gut-wrenching loss that is nothing short of devastating,” Baker said at his Tuesday press conference.
The state implemented an onsite clinical command team to respond to the outbreak. The National Guard has been requested to support on-site testing of residents at the soldiers’ home.
“We do expect the actions taken in the last couple days will save lives in the days and weeks to come. But unfortunately we also expect this situation could get worse in the coming days as well,” said Morse.
“It used to be called ‘our gem on the hill,’” said Steven Connor, a veteran’s service officer for surrounding communities, who has helped many residents secure a spot. “To think that they’re in a situation where now, for a lot of them it’s life threatening, that’s quite upsetting.”
Connor says for several years he and others have pushed for changes at the home. “It was upsetting and we didn’t think it was as bad as it was until we started hearing the rumors over the weekend,” Connor said.
Retired Army Colonel and FEMA leader Ted Monette was a resident at the home and died early Monday morning from COVID-19.
The Executive Office of Health and Human Services issued a statement on the situation.
The Commonwealth is making all resources available to the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home leadership team, including bringing in support from trained medical National Guard members. We will continue to take action to protect the health and safety of the veteran residents, and we will provide updates on the precautions being taken and the impact on residents.
Morse said coronavirus spread through the facility because there was a lack of isolation of residents who tested positive. There was also a lack of proper protocols in place, Morse said, and overcrowding.
“I think this crisis in particular is going to illuminate the fact that we need to do a better job at every level to provide for our veterans, to provide for our senior citizens and provide to the general public overall,” said Morse.
“We just want to make sure we keep as many people as possible safe, healthy and alive. That’s our effort right now.”
Baker said there will be a thorough investigation into what happened leading up to the deaths.
“Let me just say this in advance. In the short-term our primary focus is going to be on stabilizing and supporting the health and safety of the residents and their families. We will get to the bottom of what happened and when, and by who,” said Baker.