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Soldiers’ Home chief: ‘No one was kept in the dark’ 

  • Signs, flags, flowers and wreaths are placed at the entrance to the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke, Wednesday. GAZETTE PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

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

  • Holyoke Soldiers' Home Superintendent Bennett Walsh spoke at the 2020 Iwo Jima Day ceremony at the State House. STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE/CHRIS VAN BUSKIRK

Staff Writer
Published: 4/9/2020 4:06:18 PM

HOLYOKE — The superintendent of the Soldiers’ Home, who was suspended amid a deadly COVID-19 outbreak at the facility, said Thursday that state officials had been informed of the contagion as it spread and that a request for medical help late last month had been denied.

In a statement defending his response to the outbreak, Bennett Walsh said that he provided state officials with daily updates on the outbreak and that the state denied his request to have National Guard medical personnel brought to the Soldiers’ Home to help with staffing. He accused state officials of letting the “lie” persist that they didn’t know what was going on in the facility.

“There have been widespread reports in the media that state officials were kept in the dark about what was happening at the Soldiers’ Home during the COVID-19 crisis,” Walsh said. “These reports are false.”

Walsh’s statement was issued by former Hampden district attorney William Bennett — Walsh’s uncle.

As of Thursday, 32 veterans have died at the 247-bed facility since March 25. Of those, 28 have tested positive for the virus, and four tested negative. In total, 69 veteran residents and 68 staff members have tested positive, with 126 veterans and 210 staff testing negative.

The administration of Gov. Charlie Baker suspended Walsh on March 30, when it set up a “clinical command structure” to deal with the outbreak and resulting turmoil.

In his statement, Walsh said that he is cooperating with the independent investigation that Baker has initiated and that he is committed to full participation in the process. But Walsh also contradicted statements from the Baker administration, which said the state only became aware of the crisis inside the Soldiers' Home on Sunday, March 29. 

“We provided updates on a daily basis, sometimes multiple times a day,” Walsh said, noting that at “various times” he sent updates to staff at the Department of Veteran Services, Executive Office of Health and Human Services and the Department of Public Health. “These updates were by phone, text, email, conference calls and official report forms.” 

Officials at DVS, EOHSS and DPH did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Walsh said that by the afternoon of March 27, the Soldiers’ Home had notified state officials that 28 veterans living in different locations had exhibited COVID-19 symptoms and had been tested for the virus. At that point, he said, 10 had tested positive. He also said two veterans had died, with one testing positive and another who had a test pending at that moment.

“Events were happening rapidly and these statistics were again updated in the early evening when the test result for the second veteran who had died was determined to be positive,” Walsh wrote. “There were now 2 confirmed coronavirus related deaths.”

Several employees at the facility previously told the Gazette that so many workers had called out of work with COVID-19 symptoms that Soldiers’ Home higher-ups decided to combine the facility’s two dementia units, packing almost 40 residents into even closer quarters. A dozen men were sleeping in a dining room, an certified nursing assistant told the Gazette.

In his statement, Walsh said that first veteran to show coronavirus symptoms resided in “North 1,” and the first veteran to die with a confirmed positive test resided in “North 2.” He noted that those veterans were on different floors and physically separated, making it clear that the virus was not confined to one area.

Staffing was so short and the number of veterans with confirmed or suspected COVID-19 status so large, Walsh said, that medical staff was forced to consolidate some veterans into the same unit. He said that consolidation was reviewed by DPH on March 25 and accomplished on March 27.

“At midday Friday, March 27, I requested that National Guard medical personnel be sent to the Soldiers’ Home to assist our staff,” Walsh said. “That request was denied.”

Walsh said that between the night of Friday, March 27 and the morning of Sunday, March 29, six more veterans died, with four testing positive and four with test results pending. That information was reported to the state at about 4:30 p.m. on March 29, he said. The state suspended Walsh and set up its clinical command center on March 30.

“It is very disappointing to me that during this time of unspeakable horror the staffs at EOHH, DVS and DPH have remained silent and have let the lie that they didn’t know what was going on persist,” Walsh said. “State officials knew that Holyoke needed as much help as possible. No one was kept in the dark.”

In a press conference Wednesday, Baker said he did not hear about the outbreak until around 9 p.m. on March 29, and that he had been “appalled” at the facility’s communication with his office.

Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse has said that the city tried to communicate with Soldiers’ Home leadership on Saturday after hearing concerns from people inside the facility. He said he was only able to reach Walsh on Sunday, when he said that his conversation with Walsh and state Secretary of Veterans’ Affairs Francisco Ureña left him “disappointed in the lack of urgency or action.”

Morse said he then reached out to Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito, and was soon on the phone with Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders, who said she was sending a response team to the facility on Monday morning. Morse did not respond to an interview request on Thursday afternoon.

Others have said they reached state officials as early as Saturday, March 28.

Brenda Rodrigues, the president of SEIU Local 888 — a union representing many employees — said that she reached out to Ureña and Sudders directly on Saturday, March 28.

“Rodrigues informed Secretary Sudders that, regardless of what she was being told, Local 888 members were seeing many coronavirus-related deaths at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home,” SEIU 888 said in a press release on its website.

In addition to Baker’s investigation into what happened at the Soldiers’ Home, state Rep. Aaron Vega, D-Holyoke, said that lawmakers plan to conduct their own probe. And Attorney General Maura Healey announced Wednesday that she has opened an investigation into the matter.

When asked about Walsh’s statements Thursday, Steve Connor, the director of Central Hampshire Veterans Services, said that he is glad the attorney general is also conducting an investigation separate from the lawyer Baker has hired. He said that he was “shocked” to hear Walsh’s allegation that DPH approved the consolidation of two units amid the outbreak.

“It’s hard to believe that DPH OK’d that movement of beds and veterans,” Connor said. “If they did do that, I’m amazed.”

Baker named Walsh as superintendent in 2016 after the previous superintendent, Paul Barabani, retired and accused Boston of underfunding and understaffing the facility. Barabani’s deputy superintendent and the chairman of the board of trustees also resigned.

Walsh is a Marine veteran and the son of Kateri Walsh, a Springfield city councilor, and Daniel Walsh III, who previously served as a Springfield veterans services officer.

In his statement, Walsh went on to describe the devastation that the COVID-19 outbreak caused to his “fellow veterans” in the Soldiers’ Home as “gut-wrenching.”

“These are men I helped to care for with affection and respect,” he said. “I again express my sincere sympathy to their families.”

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



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