Top state and local officials were apparently kept in the dark as the coronavirus spread with deadly consequences through the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home in western Massachusetts.
Governor Charlie Baker said he was not told until Sunday night about the gravity of the situation at the state-owned long term care facility for veterans where 13 residents have died since Wednesday with six of the deaths confirmed to be from Covid-19.
"In the short term, our primary focus is on stabilizing and supporting the health and safety of the residents and their families and we will get to the bottom of what happened, and when and by who," said Baker.
On Monday, the state Department of Health and Human Services dispatched a team of experts to the Soldiers’ Home and by the end of the day, the superintendent of the facility, Bennett Walsh, had been placed on leave and new management brought in.
Baker was visibly emotional as he spoke at his daily coronavirus briefing Tuesday about the Soldiers’ Home, calling it a “special place” that he has visited many times.
" This episode is a gut-wrenching loss that is nothing short of devastating to all of us," said Baker. "Our hearts go out to the families, the loved ones, and the staff."
Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders said the proper chain was not followed to report a critical incident. She said the priority now is to look out for the well-being of the facility’s staff and residents.
She announced a dedicated phone number people can call for information if they have a loved-one at the Soldiers’ Home (413- 552-4764).
The National Guard is at the Soldiers’ Home to administer a test for the coronavirus that has a quick turnaround with the results. It is a pilot program the state is looking to roll out to other nursing homes.
Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse said his office was contacted over the weekend by someone anonymously who said there had been unreported deaths at the Soldiers’ Home. Morse said he spoke with Walsh and the state’s Secretary of Veterans’ Services Francisco Urena, but was troubled by their lack of urgency.
Frustrated, Morse said he called Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito on Sunday, who got back to him in minutes.
"We'll make sure we are in constant communication with the new leadership there and with the state and glad to see the state is now paying very close attention to what is happening at the Soldiers' Home," said Morse.
Concern spread among local advocates for veterans in mid-March when the Soldiers’ Home announced a temporary ban on visitors, according to Steve Connor, director of Central Hampshire Veterans Services.
"We wanted to know because our families wanted to know what was happening there and we could not get answers," said Connor.
Through the years there have been on-and-off concerns about underfunding and understaffing at the Soldiers’ Home, said Connor.