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Feds launch probe of Soldiers’ Home 

  • An ambulance arrives at the Soldiers' Home in Holyoke on Tuesday, March 31, 2020. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • The entrance to the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke, where 28 veterans have died of COVID-19 to date. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 4/10/2020 11:14:18 AM

HOLYOKE — Federal prosecutors are opening a civil rights investigation into the Soldiers’ Home amid a deadly coronavirus outbreak in the facility.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Massachusetts and the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division announced they’ve opened an investigation on Friday, a day after the state said that 32 residents have died at the Soldiers’ Home since March 25. Of those 32 deaths, 28 tested positive for COVID-19. 

In its statement, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said the investigation will be conducted under the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act, “which gives the department the authority to investigate violations of the U.S. Constitution and federal law that result from a ‘pattern or practice of resistance to the full enjoyment of such rights’ in state-run institutions, including nursing facilities. 

“We will aggressively investigate recent events at the Home and, as needed, require the Commonwealth to adopt reforms to ensure patient safety in the future,” U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling said in a statement. “My condolences to the families of those veterans who died while in the Home’s care; we will get to the bottom of what happened here.”

The federal investigation will be separate from other investigations that have been announced after news of the deaths within the Soldiers’ Home broke on March 30. Since then, Gov. Charlie Baker has hired a former federal prosecutor to conduct an independent investigation, Attorney General Maura Healey has launched a probe and state lawmaker s have said they plan to look into what caused the crisis.

According to numbers released by the state Thursday afternoon, 28 veterans have died after testing positive for COVID-19, with another four who died testing negative. State officials said 69 veteran residents have tested positive at the facility, as have 68 employees.

The state suspended Superintendent Bennett Walsh on March 30, setting up a clinical command structure under the leadership of Val Liptak, the CEO of Western Massachusetts Hospital in Westfield. 

Baker has said he didn’t know about the crisis until the evening of March 29, but Walsh said Thursday that he had kept state officials apprised of the situation. Walsh alleged that on March 27 he asked the state to send the National  Guard for staffing assistance and that his request was denied.

When asked about Walsh’s allegations, a spokesperson at the Executive Office of Health and Human Services released a statement Thursday evening that did not address Walsh’s characterization of communication between the Soldiers’ Home and the Baker administration. 

“The circumstances that led to the heartbreaking situation at Holyoke Soldiers' Home are the subject of a full and impartial investigation ordered by the Governor, led by Attorney Mark Pearlstein,” the statement read.

When the Gazette asked Friday for comment on the federal investigation, the EOHHS spokesperson referred back to that same statement.

A family member of one of the deceased veterans said she is “very happy” that federal prosecutors will now be looking into the crisis.

“It’s going to get the attention it’s due,” said Michelle LaPlante, whose father Chester “Chet” LaPlante died of COVID-19 in the Soldiers’ Home on April 2 — just two days shy of his 79th birthday. “I want justice.”

LaPlante said that her father, a U.S. Army veteran from Westfield, was in the facility with advanced dementia, on the same floor as the first patient to test positive for the virus. She said that when she learned her father had the virus, she was shocked to learn about the lack of quarantine happening in the facility.

“When we finally learned he tested positive after two weeks, we learned he was in the common room with all the other patients,” she said. “He should have been quarantined at the time of the testing — and they still let him roam around after testing positive.”

LaPlante said that her father was a machinist his whole life, and he would always fix everything for the family. She said her father enjoyed fishing with his brother and woodworking. The family thought they had at least a few more years left with him. 

“I was so angry,” LaPlante said of learning her father had died. “It was so unnecessary. If the superintendent had followed the guidelines and protocols that were issued by the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), it never would have happened.”

Others in the region reacted positively to the news of a federal investigation.

“We find the news promising and welcome additional investigation into the events that led to the deaths of our veterans and the spread of COVID-19 to our members,” said Cory Bombredi, an internal organizer with the union representing many Soldiers’ Home employees, SEIU Local 888. “These veterans have made the ultimate sacrifice to our country.” 

John Paradis, a Northampton veteran and former deputy superintendent of the Soldiers' Home who stepped down in 2015 amid concerns over staffing at the facility, called the federal investigation a “good development.” 

“Between this investigation and the one started by the Massachusetts Attorney General, I am hopeful that the veterans and their family members will receive answers on what has occurred, and that the investigations will result in much-needed improvements — in staffing levels and in governance issues at the home that have long been a problem,” he said.

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


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