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Baker Discusses 2020 Holyoke Soldiers’ Home COVID Outbreak While Visiting Berkshires

Two white men in suits shake hands in a fancy office while a white woman in a dress applauds, smiling
Executive Office of Health and Human Services for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts
Former Holyoke Soldiers' Home Superintendent Bennett Walsh (left), Secretary of Health and Human Services of Massachusetts Marylou Sudders (Center), and Governor Charlie Baker (Right)

Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker answered questions about his administration’s handling of the deadly Holyoke Soldiers’ Home coronavirus outbreak that killed 77 residents while visiting Berkshire County on Wednesday.

In May, the Boston Globe published a bombshell report on the Baker administration’s role in the catastrophe. The report finds the Republican governor presented misleading narratives about what led to the disaster, apparently in an effort to dodge responsibility for it.

Berkshire County lawmakers have told WAMC that they’ve read and reacted to the Globe’s reporting.

“I have seen the report and it is deeply concerning- What it reflects in terms of it failure in the chain of command, failure in communication, and the kind of insufficient staffing and the like, and really, as you've seen, quite a long list of things that went wrong and things that should have been confronted early on, and they just simply were not," said State Senator Adam Hinds, a Democrat from the Berkshire, Hampshire, Franklin and Hampden district. “We're very concerned and it clearly speaks for rapid reform. It's just absolute tragedy to think that the implications of those failures are so severe and so we need to hear more and learn more. And so I'm hoping that we'll have the governor come before the legislature and really continue to get to the bottom of this. Honestly, every time we do so, have another report or more hearings, we learn more. And so I hope that we'll continue to get to the bottom of this.”

“I absolutely believe that the administration has to take full and complete responsibility for what happened- And then further, really understand what happened," said Democratic State Representative Tricia Farley-Bouvier of the 3rd Berkshire district. “I guess I'm going to focus on the superintendent that was hired that was very clearly was a political hire. And it was exactly and specifically against a law that the legislature put into place that said that the person running that home had to have medical experience, specifically experience running a nursing home. And that didn't happen, and the consequences were tragic, and I guess predictable. So that's the exact reason we passed the legislation to say that we had to make sure it was a medical administrator needed to be running that home, just like we would do with any nursing home. Right? We would never just put a political appointee in charge.”

Bennett Walsh is the disgraced former superintendent of the home. The son of two Springfield city councilors and nephew of a long-serving former Hampden County district attorney, Walsh was hired to run the facility despite lacking health care experience. In 2020, Baker wrongly claimed to have never met him before reversing his story after the Globe article this spring.

In Adams, Baker Wednesday reiterated that Walsh was not a political appointee.

“Under state law, Bennett Walsh was hired by the board at Holyoke Soldiers’ Home," Baker told WAMC. "The chair of that board was an appointee of the previous administration. And the board, majority of the board members were appointees of the previous administration.”

The Globe report contradicts this claim, noting Baker named three of the trustees who oversaw the search – including the board chair. While the board recommended three finalists, the paper reported Baker made the final call to hire Walsh.

The governor was in Adams to celebrate $6.5 million in state aid for the long-gestating Greylock Glen Outdoor Recreation and Nature Center project.

Baker told WAMC that he continues to think about the tragedy almost daily, and that he was satisfied with the reports that have already been conducted – including a purportedly independent one ordered by Baker and carried out by private attorney Mark Pearlstein.

“The legislative report on this and the work that was done by Steve Pearlstein, Mark Pearlstein, they both basically drew a number of the same conclusions about what was needed to be done to make sure this never happens again. And I hope one of the things that does happen as we move forward with the building of the new facility, is that some of those changes in statutory reporting, and some of those other issues get addressed in in the legislation.”

Scrutiny of the Baker administration’s handling of the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home investigation has continued as recently as late June. A follow-up report from the Globe questions if the Pearlstein Investigation was truly independent, given a legal contract between the Office of the Governor and the law firm that created an attorney-client relationship that could shield internal communications between them from the public.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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