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Soldiers’ Home staff cope with COVID-19 diagnoses 

  • The entrance to the Soldiers' Home in Holyoke. Photographed on Tuesday, March 31, 2020. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • A sign in support of the nursing staff at the Soldiers' Home in Holyoke is displayed beside flags, flowers and wreaths, Wednesday, Apr. 8, 2020. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

Staff Writer
Published: 4/8/2020 5:13:04 PM

HOLYOKE — During the worst days of his battle with the coronavirus disease COVID-19, Joseph Ramirez said that the pain in his muscles was so excruciating that he would cry.

“It has quite honestly been hell,” said Ramirez, a certified nursing assistant, or CNA, at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home. “I’ve never been through something that has turned my body inside and out like that.”

Ramirez’s illness is one that many of his Soldiers’ Home co-workers are also facing at the moment. On Wednesday, state officials reported that 68 employees and 62 residents have now tested positive at the facility amid a coronavirus outbreak in which 20 veterans who tested positive for COVID-19 have died. Another 210 employees have tested negative. 

As the outbreak spread, the state suspended Superintendent Bennett Walsh on March 30 and set up a “clinical command structure.” Gov. Charlie Baker hired a private investigator to look into what happened at the Soldiers’ Home, and on Wednesday, Attorney General Maura Healey announced that her office is also launching a separate investigation to determine if legal action is warranted. The AG’s office has the statutory authority to investigate both criminal and civil violations of law.

Overall, 27 veterans have died at the 247-bed facility since March 25. Of those, 20 have tested positive for the virus, three tested negative, three have test results pending and another veteran’s status remains unknown. Ramirez said he and his colleagues are devastated to see all the veterans whom they were close to die in such a short amount of time.

But the crisis at the Soldiers’ Home has also caused anguish among workers at the facility as they, too, suffer from the harsh impacts of COVID-19.

“It’s heart-wrenching because they’re bringing it home to their families,” said Cory Bombredi, an organizer with SEIU 888, the union representing many staff members in the building.

Bombredi said that of the 67 workers at the Soldiers’ Home who had tested positive as of Tuesday, 46 are members of SEIU 888. He said that he has heard that some union members are in the hospital being treated for the virus.

“We have several cases where workers transmitted the virus to their spouses,” he said. “We have cases where children have tested positive.”

Long-standing concerns

Several Soldiers’ Home CNAs have told the Gazette in the wake of the outbreak that they have felt mistreated by management in the building for years, and that their pleas for more staffing were ignored.

 Those concerns were echoed in a  column  published Tuesday in the  Gazette by John Paradis, who resigned as deputy superintendent of  the Soldiers’ Home in December 2015 after he said state officials failed to act on staffing concerns he and then-superintendent Paul Barabani had raised.

“Of all the things we said to the higher-ups in Boston, and there were many, the most important one was that if you aren’t taking care of your most valuable care providers then you aren’t doing the mission,” Paradis said, describing CNAs as the “lifeblood” of the facility. “And if you aren’t doing the mission, you are placing elder veterans who fought for our country at risk.”

Erin Saykin, a CNA at the Soldiers’ Home for 16 years, said Monday that she felt management’s failure to protect employees during the COVID-19 outbreak was part of a longstanding problem at the facility.

“Their attitude is basically that they don’t care about us,” said Saykin, who herself tested positive for the virus and has been isolated behind closed doors dealing with symptoms and anxiety for nearly two weeks. “I can’t leave my bedroom except to bathe and go to the bathroom.”

‘Action chart’

Bombredi also said he is concerned about a directive staffers received on Friday that if they have tested positive for COVID-19 but are asymptomatic, they should report to work.

In an email obtained by the Gazette, Soldiers’ Home spokeswoman Debra Foley sent staffers an “action chart” for when to return to work.

Ramirez said he and others have interpreted the chart as saying that those who test positive but have no symptoms should continue to work.

“Which in the past was not the message that we’ve received,” he said. “There’s been a lot of mixed messages still going on in the building because there are people positive in the building who are still working.”

“After returning to work,” the Soldiers’ Home email says, health care personnel should wear a face mask at all times while in the health care facility until all symptoms are completely resolved or until 14 days after illness onset, whichever is longer.”

During that period, the employees will also be restricted from contact with severely immunocompromised patients and must self-monitor for symptoms, the email says.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that in a “test-based strategy,” health care facilities should exclude workers from the facility until there is a resolution of fever without the use of fever-reducing medications and improvement in respiratory symptoms (e.g., cough, shortness of breath).

The CDC also recommends two FDA-authorized negative swab specimens for COVID-19 taken at least 24 hours apart.

The CDC criteria also suggest, though, that health care providers “might determine that the recommended approaches cannot be followed” if a facility is looking to mitigate staffing shortages.

For those who test positive for COVID-19 and have symptoms, the guidelines in the Soldiers’ Home email follow CDC criteria for a “non-test-based strategy.”

The email says those employees will “be excluded from work until: at least 3 days (72hrs) have passed since recovery defined as resolution of fever without the use of fever-reducing medications and improvement in respiratory symptoms (e.g., cough, shortness of breath); and … at least 7 days have passed since symptoms first appeared.”

The Executive Office of Health and Human Services did not respond to questions about the action plan, which was first reported by WBUR. When asked about the action plan at a press conference Tuesday, Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders said she had not seen the chart.

“The guidance generally is if you test positive, that you should stay out of work for a period of time,” Sudders said. “And then if you’re asymptomatic you can come back to work with protective gear — masks and the like.”

For now, the National Guard is at the Soldiers’ Home filling in staffing gaps due to the large number of employees who have tested positive. An HHS spokesperson said Tuesday that an “enhanced staffing pattern” is being developed. The Soldiers’ Home has also brought on additional contracted housekeeping staff to improve infection control, HHS said.

But Ramirez, the CNA, said that behind the understaffing there is a disconnect — between front-line employees and administrators and managers who, he said, don’t sympathize with or understand the hard work direct-care workers do in the building. And he said that disconnect continues to be an issue.

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


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