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Gov. Baker launches investigation into Holyoke Soldiers’ Home; veteran deaths rise to 15 

  • The Soldiers' Home in Holyoke. Photographed on Tuesday, March 31, 2020. GAZETTE PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • National Guard soldiers enter the Holyoke Soldiers' Home through the Outpatient Department entrance on Tuesday, March 31, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 4/1/2020 12:16:03 PM

BOSTON — Gov. Charlie Baker has announced the hiring of an independent attorney to conduct an investigation of the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, where 15 veteran residents have now died since March 25 amid a coronavirus outbreak.

Baker’s office said Wednesday that it has hired Mark Pearlstein, a private attorney who previously practiced as a federal prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Boston, to lead the investigation.

“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,” a statement from the governor’s office said.

The Soldiers’ Home is a state-funded facility that offers veterans health care, hospice care, including full-time residential accommodations, an on-site dental clinic, veterans assistance center, and a multi-service outpatient department.

State health officials placed the facility’s superintendent, Bennett Walsh, on suspension Monday after news broke that 11 residents had already died, including five who had tested positive for COVID-19. Staff members who spoke to the Gazette detailed a chaotic situation inside the Soldiers’ Home in which coronavirus protocols were ignored, staff and residents were exposed to contagious and potentially contagious residents, and nurses were denied proper protective equipment.

In figures released Wednesday, the state’s Executive Office of Health and Human Services said that 15 veterans have died at the Soldiers’ Home in the last week. Of those who died, six have tested positive for the virus, six have pending tests, two tested negative and the status of one is unknown.

The state also said that one resident at the Soldiers’ Home in Chelsea has died after testing positive for COVID-19.

“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 statement from Health and Human Services said. “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.”

One of those who died at the Soldiers’ Home was Ted Monette, a retired U.S. Army colonel who served in the Vietnam and Persian Gulf wars. Monette had also helped lead support efforts of the Federal Emergency Management Agency after the Sept. 11 attacks and in the way of Hurricane Katrina.

Ted Monette’s son, Greg Monette — the owner of the Chesterfield General Store — said in a Facebook post that his father’s service had earned “the trust and confidence of everyone who ever worked with him, from first responders to presidents.”

“My father’s role was always ‘boots on the ground,’ as he would say,” Greg wrote. “We’re very proud of the work my father did.”

Greg wrote that the Soldiers’ Home has had a no-visitor policy because of the coronavirus pandemic, but that his sister Aimee was able to receive a video call on Monday from the facility. He said the family is left with the realization that “so many people’s family members around the world are dying alone right now.”

“Our hearts go out to those suffering from this pandemic, and to those caregivers who are making the sacrifice to be there for them,” he wrote. “And we are heart broken for their families.”

Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse said Wednesday that over the past 24 hours his office has received calls from family members with loved ones living at the Soldiers’ Home who are struggling to get information.

“There still seems like there’s some issues with communication,” Morse said. He noted that the state has set up a hotline for families at 413-552-4764, with help available Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. and on Saturday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. The state also has set up an email inbox for families at CommunicationsMailbox-HLY@Mass.gov.

In addition to installing Val Liptak, the CEO of Western Massachusetts Hospital in Westfield, as acting superintendent, the state set up a clinical command group at the Soldiers’ Home, with the National Guard also on site to help with testing and staffing needs.

Walsh released a statement to Western Mass News on Wednesday in which he expressed “grief and sorrow” for the veterans who died and sympathy for their families.

“During this crisis all our decisions were informed by the available CDC and DPH guidelines on COVID-19,” the statement read.

“At no time did I, or anyone on my staff, hide, conceal or mislead anyone regarding the tragic impact of the virus and it would be outrageous for anyone to even think of doing such a thing.”   

Walsh was sworn in to the job by Baker in July 2016. He earned a salary of $122,299 in 2019.

During his daily COVID-19 update on Wednesday, Baker said that all of the facility’s residents have now been tested and that the state is now in the process of ensuring that all staff is tested. Brenda Rodrigues, the president of SEIU 888 — which represents many staffers at the Soldiers’ Home — said many of the union’s members had not yet been tested as of Wednesday afternoon.

Baker said that launching an independent investigation will help the state learn what happened at the Soldiers’ Home and when.

“And what didn’t happen and when it didn’t happen in the period leading up to the discovery on Sunday night about what the state of play was there,” Baker said. “We are going to make sure Mark and his team have access to all the services and all the people they need access to to get to the bottom of what took place.”

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

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