A special legislative committee in Massachusetts created to investigate the deadly COVID-19 outbreak at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home heard today from family members.
Each of the people who testified had the same message for the state legislators.
"People need to be held responsible for it and it needs to not happen again," said Susan Kenney as she fought back tears.
Kenney, of Ware, recounted how when she heard news reports in March about deaths at the home, she frantically called to inquire about her 78-year-old father Charles Lowell, but heard nothing.
After 30 hours went by, Kenney said she wrote in big letters on her car’s widow: “Is my dad alive?” and drove to the Soldiers’ Home.
Two weeks later, on April 15th, Kenney’s father, an Air Force veteran, died.
"It can't happen again." said Kenney. She said the legislators should ensure the home gets what it needs to provide the best care.
At least 76 residents of the state-owned long term care facility died of COVID-19, making it among the single deadliest outbreaks in the nation.
The former superintendent Bennett Walsh and the facility’s former medical director David Clinton are facing criminal neglect charges. An investigation conducted for Gov. Charlie Baker by former federal prosecutor Mark Pearlstein found “utterly baffling decisions” were made by the people in charge.
Michael Gaudette said when his father George, a U.S. Army veteran, was affected with dementia his family thought he would be safe in the Soldiers’ Home, but instead he suffered a cruel death.
"Our soldiers were inprisoned here," said Gaudette. "They were concentrated into rooms that allowed the COVID virus to take advantage of these people that really were in a weakened state already."
Cheryl Turgeon of East Longmeadow, whose 90-year-old father Dennis Thresher survived COVID-19, said since his return to the Soldiers’ Home he has deteriorated both physically and mentally. She said staffing shortages and communications breakdowns are still occurring.
"I don't believe the current interim administration fully understands the veterans and the mission of the home, and we're tired of their sometimes indifferent communications with us still," she said.
The hearing Tuesday, held at Holyoke Community College, was the first public meeting by the 17-member oversight committee.
A second hearing for family members to testify, this time virtually, will take place Thursday.
State Rep. Linda Dean Campbell, a Democrat from Methuen, and co-chair of the oversight committee called the testimony from family members a “great public service.”
Next week, the committee hopes to hear from staffers at the Soldiers’ Home.
State Senator John Velis, a Democrat from Westfield, whose district includes Holyoke, said if circumstances allow it, the committee should hear from current residents of the home.
An advocacy group, the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home Coalition, stood outside the entrance to the college before the hearing in a show of support for the people testifying. The coalition is lobbying for changes in how the Soldiers’ Home is governed and for a significant upgrade to the physical facilities.