Please support the Daily Hampshire Gazette’s COVID-19 coverage

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought the local economy — and many of the advertisers who support our work — to a near standstill. During this unprecedented challenge, we continue to make our coronavirus coverage free to everyone at gazettenet.com because we feel our most critical mission is to deliver vital information to our communities. If you believe local news is essential, especially during this crisis, please donate.

Thank you for your support of the Gazette.

Michael Moses, Publisher


Sponsored by:

‘Just complete chaos’: Soldiers’ Home staff cite dangerous conditions fueling COVID-19 outbreak 

  • A crew from Green Site Services Group working at the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke remove their personal protective equipment in a trailer parked just outside the Outpatient Department entrance on Tuesday. The Bellingham company’s website says it provides coronavirus/COVID-19 disinfection response services. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • An ambulance arrives at the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke on Tuesday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Tents are set up outside the Outpatient Department entrance to the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke on Tuesday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Tents are set up outside the Outpatient Department entrance to the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke on Tuesday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • National Guard soldiers enter the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home through the outpatient department entrance on Tuesday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • A crew from Green Site Services Group working at the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke remove their personal protective equipment in a trailer parked just outside the Outpatient Department entrance on Tuesday. The Bellingham company’s website says it provides coronavirus/COVID-19 disinfection response services. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • The entrance to the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke. Photographed on Tuesday, March 31, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

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

  • Tents are set up outside the Outpatient Department entrance to the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke on Tuesday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 3/31/2020 3:51:47 PM

HOLYOKE — As the region reels from 13 recent deaths of veterans at the Soldiers’ Home amid an outbreak of COVID-19, staff members are alleging that dangerous conditions and a lack of transparency on the part of administrators fueled the crisis.

“It’s just complete chaos,” said one certified nursing assistant, or CNA, choking back tears Monday while describing the dangerous conditions the residents were allegedly exposed to:

■Allowing a patient with symptoms awaiting coronavirus test results to mingle in common areas on his unit.

■Failing to isolate that patient’s roommates and to provide staff who had to treat him with proper protective equipment.

■Crowding veterans from two units together on one floor after many employees fell ill.

■Intimidating and failing to listen to employees who raised concerns about hazardous conditions.

Two CNAs spoke to the Gazette on the condition of anonymity, citing fear of losing their jobs.

The facility’s safety protocols always seemed to be a day or two behind, allowing widespread contagion among residents and employees, said one CNA: “Right now, my heart just goes out to those veterans that we lost, those families that couldn’t be there.”

On Monday, the state stepped in, setting up an on-site clinical command team, suspending Superintendent Bennett Walsh and implementing stricter safety protocols.

So far, six of the 13 who died tested positive for COVID-19, ​​​​​​with tests pending for another five. An additional veteran tested negative, and the 13th veteran’s status is unknown, according to information released Tuesday afternoon by the state.

In addition to the veterans who died, 10 other veteran residents and seven staff members have tested positive for COVID-19. Twenty-five other veterans were awaiting test results as of Tuesday, according to the Executive Office of Health and Human Services.

‘Lack of urgency’

Appearing on Facebook Live on Tuesday, Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse said that 11 deaths occurred between March 25 and March 30. He said city health officials tried to communicate with Soldiers’ Home leadership on Saturday after hearing concerns from people inside the facility. But their messages went unanswered, Morse said, adding that it was only when he reached Walsh directly on Sunday that he learned the extent of the crisis.

“I was shocked on the phone call when the superintendent let me know that there had been eight veteran deaths between Wednesday and Sunday without any public notice, without any notification to our office and no notification to the state government that oversees the facility in the first place,” he said. “There was a clear lack of urgency on that phone call. We were repeatedly told these were people who had underlying health conditions.”

Morse said that a subsequent phone call with Walsh and state Secretary of Veterans’ Affairs Francisco Ureña left him “disappointed in the lack of urgency or action.”

So he followed up with Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito, who got back to him “within minutes.” Soon, he said, he was on a call with Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders, who said she was sending a response team to the facility on Monday morning.

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. The health care facilities consist of a main, 247-bed facility and another domiciliary for 30 full-time residents.

On Friday, the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency distributed tents to state-operated facilities, including the Soldiers’ Home, to function as a single point of entry where people can be screened 24/7. At the conclusion of the screening, employees are given personal protective equipment before entering the facility, according to state health officials.

One Soldiers’ Home CNA said management allowed the first veteran awaiting his COVID-19 test result to mingle in common areas with two dozen other veterans. After he tested positive, the veteran’s roommates were moved to rooms with other residents instead of being isolated in accordance with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that CNA said.

The CNA also alleged that management did not provide employees with personal protective equipment, or PPE, when they were interacting with the patient awaiting coronavirus test results. And after the patient tested positive for COVID-19, management did not direct those employees to self-isolate.

“We were not allowed to wear proper PPE, the N95, until somebody was positive,” the second CNA said, referring to the masks used in most hospital settings when interacting with potentially contagious patients.

As employees became sick, other staffers who were still able to work had to float from unit to unit to make up for the absences, risking spreading the virus further, the first CNA said.

The first CNA said Walsh created a threatening environment in the building for workers, saying over the intercom that those using COVID-19 as an excuse to stay home from work would be disciplined.

“There’s no staff, and some people are being mandated to work 16-hour shifts because there’s nobody to cover, and these people don’t have a choice,” the first CNA said. “You can refuse to work, but you get suspended ... So people are kind of stuck between, ‘Do I work in unsafe conditions, or do I keep my job?’”

Eventually, the CNA said, so many employees had called out of work with COVID-19 symptoms that Soldiers’ Home higher-ups decided to combine the facility’s two dementia units, packing residents into even closer quarters.

“They took all the veterans from the floor on the top and combined them with the veterans downstairs, where the original illness began,” said the CNA. “All they’re doing is creating a big petri dish with all of these gentlemen getting this virus.”

Those accounts were separately confirmed by the second CNA, who said that staffing has always been thin at the Soldiers’ Home and was made even worse by the pandemic.

“They’ve spread out veterans so now we have six beds in rooms that normally had three or four beds,” the second CNA said. “So forget about social distancing — they’re all on top of one another.”

The second CNA said that employees voicing concerns about developing symptoms after being exposed — without PPE — to possibly contagious patients were told by managers that they could have simply caught the virus “at the grocery store.” The CNA added that workers are now being required to use their sick time while awaiting test results.

“I lost four (veterans) in one day,” the second CNA said. “And I just needed to go and cry because it’s not OK.”

State responds

In response to questions, a spokesperson for the Executive Office of Health and Human Services said the agency took immediate action when it learned the extent of the outbreak, instituting a leadership change and setting up a clinical command structure “to bring rigor and clinical expertise to support the residents and staff.” That structure is under the leadership of Val Liptak, the CEO of Western Massachusetts Hospital in Westfield, the spokesperson said.

In a letter to residents and families, Liptak acknowledged their concerns over the deadly outbreak.

“As a registered nurse and health care executive with experience running one of the state’s large long term medical and specialty care hospitals, I will provide critical expertise to the team here at the home,” Liptak wrote.

The statement from the Executive Office of Health and Human Services did not answer any of the Gazette’s questions about the specific allegations raised by the two CNAs.

But those employees’ accounts matched some of what Steve Connor, the director of Central Hampshire Veterans Services, heard from staff who reached out to him over the weekend.

“I was upset when I heard it, and I guess I was surprised at the amount of deaths,” Connor said. “I wasn’t surprised a lot of people were getting it.”

Connor said he had spoken with employees and families in 2017 who detailed how staff at the facility were overworked, forced to work overtime and unable to speak out about those conditions. Connor also noted that former Soldiers’ Home Superintendent Paul Barabani had resigned in 2016 after his numerous pleas for more staffing went unheeded. Connor said he thinks some of those conditions, as well as the crowding in the facility, have made the current outbreak worse.

“People call us paranoid out here in western Massachusetts, but I think we were right that most of the resources were going out to the Soldiers’ Home in Chelsea,” Connor said, referencing the state’s other facility in the eastern part of the state. “They weren’t reinvesting in Holyoke, and we were feeling quite slighted, and I think this (outbreak) got worse than it could have been.”

In a phone interview, U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield — whose uncle is a full-time resident at the Soldiers’ Home — said that “the tragedy that has unfolded there is unacceptable.” He said that there needs to be accountability for what happened at the facility.

Neal said one of the first things a person notices when visiting the Soldiers’ Home is how closely confined residents are.

“They all sit within inches of each other, they have common meals, and even when they’re in the recreation room, the proximity in the recreation room is pretty tight,” he said.

Kevin Jourdain, the former Holyoke City Council president and current chairman of the Soldiers’ Home board of trustees, declined to answer questions Tuesday.

Jourdain did say, however, that Walsh gave a presentation to the board on March 10 about the facility’s preparations for COVID-19.

“There was nobody who had tested positive, but there were discussions about limitations on visitors and volunteers,” he said.

In a statement for a March 19 Gazette article about visitation policies during the pandemic, the home’s Superintendent Bennett Walsh said that staff was “taking an ‘all hands on deck’ approach to make sure our veterans are getting the best quality care and life enrichment they deserve during this difficult and uncertain time.”

He continued, “We are doing everything possible to protect those who protected us.”

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


Daily Hampshire Gazette Office

115 Conz Street
Northampton, MA 01061
413-584-5000

 

Copyright © 2019 by H.S. Gere & Sons, Inc.
Terms & Conditions - Privacy Policy