As coronavirus outbreak stabilizes, attention turns to future of Holyoke Soldiers’ Home  

  • The 104th Fighter Wing of the Massachusetts Air National Guard conducts an F-15 flyover over the Holyoke Soldiers' Home on May 6.  GAZETTE FILE PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • The Soldiers' Home in Holyoke.  GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 6/11/2020 9:04:16 PM
Modified: 6/11/2020 9:04:03 PM

HOLYOKE — As the a massive coronavirus outbreak appears to have been largely contained at the Soldiers’ Home, the facility is preparing to resume outdoor visitation and some are calling for the reconstruction of the facility.

The situation at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home has stabilized recently after two months of increasing deaths since the outbreak began in late March. But nobody who has tested positive for the coronavirus has died since Memorial Day weekend. In total, 94 veteran residents have died since the outbreak began, 76 of whom have tested positive for COVID-19.

The state announced Wednesday that all veteran residents had been retested, with eight testing positive and another two that are being treated as positive after receiving inconclusive results. Employees have also been retested, with two testing positive and another four being retested after inconclusive results.

Calling those figures “a marked improvement and a promising sign of recovery,” state officials have announced that they are preparing to resume limited outdoor visitation at the facility, contingent on the “continued stability of infection controls and public health metrics.”

State and Soldiers’ Home leaders have now turned their attention to the future. At Tuesday’s meeting of the board of trustees, part of the discussion revolved around plans to make improvements to the facility.

Trustee Chairman Kevin Jourdain brought up a renovation proposal that former superintendent Paul Barabani submitted in 2012 that would see the federal government cover 65% of the $116 million needed to build a five-story addition and complete renovation of the existing building. The state would need to fund just over $40.5 million.

“If there’s an opportunity to receive federal reimbursement in the amount of 65% for a brand new Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, I’d like to at least have that studied and investigated and determined if true,” Jourdain said, noting that he learned of the plan from a recent news report. “And if true, does that make sense for our long-term future, and is the administration at least willing to look into that?”

Deputy Secretary for Health and Human Services Daniel Tsai said that the state would engage in a long-term planning discussion, studying all options to meet the needs of the veteran residents in the era of COVID-19.

Trustee Isaac Mass, a new member of the board, noted that he recently took his first full tour of the Soldiers’ Home and found it “woefully inadequate” even for the time prior to the coronavirus pandemic.

“These facilities are in no way capable of being up to date even with millions of dollars being poured in to patch and repair and retool what we have,” he said. “It is without a doubt that a new facility needs to be built now.”

Chris Dupont, another trustee, noted that he has been on the board since 2017 and was “never made aware by the commonwealth that this project was even out there.”

“Well that makes two of us, probably three, maybe more of us, if not all of us,” Jourdain said.

The project currently sits on a priority list of projects that don’t yet have state matching funds. And Barabani, who has not issued public comments since the COVID-19 outbreak began, broke his silence Tuesday to advocate for the project.

In a statement, Barabani said he sees no need for another study to be done. He said the 2012 renovation plan is still active as a VA construction grant, and could be tweaked to create a facility that meets current standards. He noted that state matching funds would be due by Aug. 1 to be eligible for 2021 funding, adding that the Baker administration and state Legislature should provide the funds to allow the Soldiers’ Home to rise from its tragedy.

“The vision of the Soldiers’ Home of the future will provide hope and begin the healing process that is so greatly needed,” Barabani wrote. “Without such action the loss of life will have been in vain. The victims of this tragedy, their families, the dedicated staff at the Home, and the Veterans of Massachusetts have earned such a facility.”

During the trustees’ meeting, Tsai said that the current configuration of the facility is not sufficient for social distancing and infection control protocols.

In a Gazette column in early May, Barabani’s former deputy superintendent John Paradis noted that work was underway this year for a new $199 million long-term care facility at the Chelsea Soldiers’ Home. That project, he said, was similar to the Holyoke project. But when the funding for Chelsea was approved in 2017, the funding bill directed the state to simply do a study of long-term care needs in Holyoke, Paradis wrote.

“By 2017, with backing from Gov. Baker of Swampscott and House Speaker Robert DeLeo of Winthrop, the entire state legislative delegation got behind the $199 million new construction,” Paradis said. “You didn’t hear a peep from the new superintendent or board of trustees in Holyoke, nor from our western Mass. State House representatives, so we have only ourselves to blame.”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.


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