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COVID-19 claims more lives at Soldiers’ Home 

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

  • 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, March 31, 2020. The Bellingham company's website says it provides coronavirus/COVID-19 disinfection response services.

Staff Writer
Published: 4/3/2020 5:26:26 PM

HOLYOKE — A coronavirus outbreak continues to devastate the Soldiers’ Home, where state officials announced Friday that 21 veteran residents have died at the facility since March 25.

Of those who died, 15 have tested positive for COVID-19, three have tests pending, two tested negative and another’s status is still unknown. The state also announced that 59 veteran residents have now tested positive for the virus, in addition to 18 staff members. In addition, 160 veteran residents have tested negative.

Since news of the outbreak became public Monday, some front-line employees inside the Soldiers’ Home have said that many years of short staffing and intimidation from management may have exacerbated the recent crisis.

“If you don’t have enough staff and there’s an emergency, you can’t run the facility,” said one longtime certified nursing assistant, or CNA, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisal.

Those concerns have often been raised in public over recent years, and they are now under the spotlight again amid the COVID-19 crisis in the Soldiers’ Home. In interviews with the Gazette, employees, the unions representing them and local veteran advocates say that the coronavirus outbreak was likely worsened by problems that have long existed within the building.

Employees “don’t want to talk because they are afraid, they have to put food on the table for their kids,” said the CNA. He said management has “threatened” staff into working overtime due to significant understaffing and that management frequently resorts to retaliation and excessive discipline.

Those concerns are similar to issues raised by unions, veteran advocates and several studies during recent years, including: a Suffolk University study commissioned in 2019 by the Executive Office of Health and Human Services; and a September 2017 memo that Steve Connor, the director of Central Hampshire Veterans Services, wrote for then-state Rep. Peter Kocot.

Staffing was such a critical — and unaddressed — issue that former Soldiers’ Home Superintendent Paul Barabani suddenly retired in 2015 after continuously pleading with state officials to increase staffing. That’s according to John Paradis, who was then deputy superintendent and resigned shortly after Barabani, citing the same concerns.

“Appeals for help were met with either apathy or flat-out derision,” Paradis wrote in a column published in the Gazette in January 2016. “At a legislative breakfast in 2014, Paul had the audacity to note that staffing levels at the Soldiers’ Home were far below state and national averages. Afterward, he was reprimanded by those in Boston and told not to bring up our staffing again. “Any information we provided to legislators or meetings from that point forward had to be approved in advance,” he said.

Those staffing worries continued to be a concern years later. In January 2019, the Office of Health and Human Services commissioned the Moakley Center for Public Management at Suffolk University to conduct a study assessing a significant increase in overtime at the Soldiers’ Home — an increase of 20 percent between fiscal years 2017 and 2018.

The study found that the biggest factors driving overtime expenses were inconsistent scheduling practices, a high percentage of time off and high levels of turnover for direct care staff — defined as CNAs, licensed practical nurses and registered nurses.

“According to CNAs, LPNs and RNs there is not enough staff to provide care for veterans,” the report notes. “On the other hand, senior management were confident that the staffing plan was sufficient and that it was more about maximizing the level of productivity of the direct care staff.”

The report also said that the “single most crucial thing” that Soldiers’ Home direct care staff said they wanted at the facility was “an environment where they felt respected and ‘heard.’”

A lack of respect from management has been a major problem for workers in the building, according to Andrea Fox, the associate director of the Massachusetts Nurses Association’s division of labor action. The union represents RNs in the Soldiers’ Home.

Fox said Friday there has been a “culture of fear and retaliation” against any employee “speaking against the company line,” and that the problem went all the way up to the superintendent.

In his 2017 memo, Connor also cited a “fear of reprisals” on the part of staff, family members and the members of the Western Massachusetts Veteran Service Officers Association.

Officials at the Executive Office of Health and Human Services and the Department of Veterans’ Services did not immediately respond to requests for comment on this story.

Fox alleges that Soldiers’ Home management “were not preparing properly for this pandemic,” despite having the necessary personal protective equipment, or PPE, on hand for staff. Staff had to fight for PPE even after the facility announced its first patient to test positive for COVID-19, according to Fox and the CNA.

“All of those things coming together really created the background for this unfortunate, tragic and deadly problem,” Fox said.

In fact, one CNA was even disciplined for wearing PPE “without permission or need.” In a letter provided by SEIU 888 — the union representing CNAs and LPNs in the building — the facility’s chief nursing officer reprimanded a CNA for donning personal protective equipment during a March 18 shift.

“Your actions are disruptive, extremely inappropriate and have caused unnecessary resources to be deployed that may be needed in the future,” the March 20 letter from a chief nursing officer reads. “Your behavior unnecessarily disrupted and alarmed staff.”

Employees were notified March 22 that a long-term patient had tested positive for the coronavirus. Before that, however, veterans on one of the units were already showing signs of coronavirus, such as coughing and vomiting, according to the CNA.

Two other anonymous CNAs told the Gazette earlier this week that because staff had to work around veterans with symptoms, many have fallen ill and that staffing was so reduced that two dementia units were combined into one, crowding veterans into even closer quarters.

“I don’t think they ever asked themselves the question, ‘What are we going to do if we have a case?’” one of those CNAs said.

Gov. Charlie Baker has hired a private investigator to investigate the situation at the Soldiers’ Home, and state lawmakers are now saying they plan to open their own investigation into the matter.

“I do think that we want to get the answers, I think families deserve to know what happened and we want to know what happened,” state Rep. Aaron Vega, D-Holyoke, said Friday.

Vega said that staffing concerns and budget issues came up immediately when he was first elected to his position eight years ago. He said that over the last two years, however, he has heard less about those issues. He also noted that when the Department of Veterans Affairs does inspections, the facility has passed.

“Obviously the bare minimums aren’t enough for those on the front line, and I agree with them,” Vega said, adding that budget issues often come into play when contemplating fixes at the facility. “We would love to go above and beyond the VA recommendations.”

It is still unclear what preparations Soldiers’ Home management made for a COVID-19 outbreak, though the facility did restrict visitors beginning March 14. Kevin Jourdain, the chairman of the board of trustees of the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, said those were the only preparations that Superintendent Bennett Walsh discussed at the board’s March 10 meeting.

“I don’t think there was a detailed plan or program of what was going on,” Jourdain said of Walsh’s presentation. Walsh was suspended from his duties on Monday and replaced by Val Liptak, the CEO of Western Massachusetts Hospital.

When asked whether he was concerned that no detailed plan was presented at that meeting or a previous one in February, Jourdain said that the superintendent assured the board “that social isolation and safeguards were in place to take care of the veterans … and that they had the matter well in hand.”

“We count on him to provide the reports that he wants to provide,” Jourdain said. “The topic came up and we trust his assurances that internal controls are taking place … When he says the correct procedures are in place, we count on the fact that those things are in fact happening.”

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


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