Attorney for Soldiers’ Home chief: ‘I want to set the record straight’

  • William Bennett, the attorney for suspended Holyoke Soldiers' Home Superintendent Bennett Walsh, speaks at a press conference on Tuesday, May 26, 2020. —DUSTY CHRISTENSEN

Staff Writer
Published: 5/26/2020 7:04:21 PM

SPRINGFIELD — The attorney for suspended Holyoke Soldiers’ Home Superintendent Bennett Walsh has released documents that he says show that Walsh kept state officials apprised of a COVID-19 outbreak that has killed at least 76 veterans.

Former Hampden district attorney William Bennett — Walsh’s uncle and lawyer — made the documents public at a press conference Tuesday. They include incident reports Walsh filed with the state, emails and texts updating officials on the outbreak, and a March 27 formal request for assistance from the National Guard as the virus spread.

Walsh has been on paid leave since March 30, when the state stepped in and set up a clinical command structure to deal with the outbreak. As of Tuesday, 92 veteran residents have died at the facility since late March, 76 of whom tested positive for the coronavirus, making the outbreak one of the deadliest at a long-term care facility in the country.

Gov. Charlie Baker has maintained that he did not know of the scope of the crisis inside the Soldiers’ Home until Sunday, March 29. But speaking at the press conference Tuesday, Bennett said he hoped to quash the “falsehoods” that state officials had been kept in the dark and that nobody knew what was happening inside the Soldiers’ Home.

“Since that statement, I have waited for state officials to acknowledge that he did indeed request the National Guard and that he fully informed state officials of the circumstances that required him to do so,” Bennett said. “Because they have remained silent, I want to set the record straight.”

Bennett also alleged Tuesday that Walsh had been prohibited from making public comments without prior approval from state officials, and that he believes Walsh’s communication with Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse about the outbreak was ultimately what led to his suspension.

A spokesperson in the governor’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday. A spokesperson with the state’s Executive Office of Health and Human Services, or EOHHS, did not address any of the allegations made by Bennett or the documents that he released.

“We are deeply saddened by the extent of the outbreak and the loss of life,” the spokesperson said in a statement. “The circumstances that led to the heartbreaking situation at Holyoke Soldiers’ Home — including management and oversight — are the subject of a full and impartial investigation ordered by the Governor, led by Attorney Mark Pearlstein.”

In the documents, Bennett lays out a timeline of Walsh’s communication with state officials, beginning March 21 when he filed a Critical Incident Report with EOHHS and DVS.

That report alerted the state that one veteran resident had tested positive for COVID-19, and that another five who were exhibiting coronavirus symptoms had been tested. In another email to DVS Secretary Francisco Urena, Walsh says that he informed the Department of Public Health, or DPH, and the Holyoke Board of Health of that information.

Bennett said that on the following two days, staffers observed more veterans who were symptomatic, and as a result more than 20 veterans were tested. He said that at the time, state officials were only requesting reports on confirmed COVID-19 cases. Bennett provided a text message between Walsh and Urena, which showed Walsh informing him that more samples had been sent in for testing.

A March 25 incident report shows that Walsh notified EOHHS and DVS that an employee had tested positive on March 20 and was quarantined at home. Bennett said that later that day a veteran suspected of having the virus died, and that state officials were notified orally of the death.

“As concerns grew about confirmed and suspected COVID-19, the size of the staff available to deal with the crisis began to shrink, as on one day alone 40 staff members had called out,” Bennett said. He said that Soldiers’ Home medical staff reached out to EOHHS and DPH for advice, and that after discussing the conditions and steps being taken at the Soldiers’ Home, state officials assured Walsh that the steps were appropriate and consistent with guidance.

On March 27, seven veterans received positive test results with another 18 still awaiting their test results. Bennett provided a text from Walsh to Urena as well as official reports noting those results.

An email to Urena at 1:24 p.m. that day shows Walsh formally requesting National Guard assistance with staffing. By then, nine veterans had tested positive and another had died after testing positive, according to an email Walsh sent to EOHHS and DVS.

“Sometime in the afternoon Walsh was informed that his request for National Guard assistance was turned down,” Bennett said. “He was never contacted by the command center so we do not know if they ever received the request or, if they did, what attention they gave to it. We do know that the National Guard was available to respond two days later.”

Additional communications released by Bennett show Walsh informing state officials on March 29 that 10 veterans and two staffers had now tested positive. Bennett said that several veterans had died over the weekend, but that Walsh did not yet have confirmation that they had COVID-19.

By that afternoon, a report the Soldiers’ Home sent to the state showed 15 veterans and four employees testing positive. The facility’s legal counsel reported to Walsh in an email at 4:31 p.m. that four veterans who had died had been confirmed for COVID-19 and results were pending for another four who had died — details Bennett said that Walsh was scheduled to share with DVIS on a conference call the next morning.

A communication from DVS shows an agency spokesperson telling Walsh not to respond to a press inquiry. Bennett explained that Walsh had long been instructed not to speak in public without approval from the state. He said that in November 2019, Urena formally reprimanded Walsh for making a public comment praising the organization Pledge to Patriots for providing $43,000 to the Soldiers’ Home.

On the night of March 29, Bennett said that Walsh received a call from Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse, and that Walsh informed him of the situation. However, that communication was done without prior approval, Bennett said.

“State officials were livid that Walsh had talked to local officials about the situation at the Soldiers’ Home without their prior approval,” Bennett said. “It triggered an unusually heated response from state officials that resulted in his suspension. I believe this is why he was suspended and placed on leave.”

Bennett did not say exactly why he decided to release the documents on Tuesday, other than to address what he said were mistruths about Walsh’s handling of the crisis. Several investigations are ongoing into the outbreak, including from the state attorney general and federal prosecutors. Both of those offices declined to say Tuesday when their investigations would conclude.

Baker has also hired former federal prosecutor Mark Pearlstein to conduct an investigation into the outbreak. Speaking at a press conference Tuesday, Baker said that he is uncomfortable speaking about any of the specifics of the crisis in Holyoke until that investigation is finished.

“I’m waiting for Mark’s report, because I think there’s a lot of back and forth on what happened, and that’s understandable, given the enormity of the tragedy there,” Baker said. “But I’m waiting for his report.”

When asked when that report would be complete, Baker said he believes it will be done “reasonably soon.”

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