Officials Investigating Multiple COVID-19 Deaths At Massachusetts Soldiers' Home | WAMC

Officials Investigating Multiple COVID-19 Deaths At Massachusetts Soldiers' Home

May 6, 2020
Originally published on May 6, 2020 8:44 pm

One of the deadliest outbreaks of the coronavirus has been at the Holyoke Soldiers' Home, a state-run nursing home for veterans in Western Massachusetts. At least 71 veterans have died from the virus, while another 80 veterans and 81 employees have tested positive.

Employees of the Soldiers' Home say the problem began in mid-March when a man on one of the memory care floors began exhibiting symptoms of the virus. Staff say they asked about infection control plans, but that management withheld personal protective equipment and made little effort to isolate the man from other residents.

As the virus continued to spread through the building, more residents and employees fell ill. Employees say by the end of March the Soldiers' Home was so short-staffed that management decided to combine two floors of memory care residents so that fewer workers were needed each shift.

Within days the onsite morgue was at capacity, and body bags began piling up in a refrigerated truck parked outside the building.

The true extent of the outbreak broke into public consciousness on March 30; up until that point, the Soldiers' Home had only announced one positive case of the virus.

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker called in the National Guard and put the Soldiers' Home superintendent, a retired marine named Bennett Walsh, on paid administrative leave.

Walsh did not respond to a request for comment, but said last month that he asked state officials for help and got no response. The state agency that oversees the Soldiers' Home won't say when it learned about the problem.

Many questions remain about what exactly happened — and whether management at the Soldiers' Home botched the response and then tried to cover it up — and the outbreak is currently the subject of four separate state and federal investigations.

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

One of the deadliest outbreaks of the coronavirus has been at the Holyoke Soldiers' Home, a state-run nursing home for veterans in Western Massachusetts. At least 72 veterans have died from the virus, while another 79 and several dozen employees have tested positive. Miriam Wasser of member station WBUR in Boston says the facility is now the subject of four state and federal investigations.

MIRIAM WASSER, BYLINE: Kwesi Ablordeppey is a certified nursing assistant at the Soldiers' Home in Holyoke. On March 16, he was assigned to work on a floor where a resident was awaiting the results of a coronavirus test after developing a cough and a fever.

KWESI ABLORDEPPEY: So I asked, what are the plans? And they say they don't know.

WASSER: Ablordeppey, who's worked at the Soldiers' Home for 20 years, was shocked by the lack of infection control plans. But he says he was even more horrified to find that the symptomatic man was sitting in the common room with other veterans.

ABLORDEPPEY: If somebody's exhibiting this COVIC (ph) symptoms, that person need to be isolated. The person was still in the common room.

WASSER: The man had dementia and so couldn't reasonably be asked to practice social distancing or wear a mask. But Ablordeppey says letting him interact with other residents was the first of many bad decisions management made over the next two weeks. Another bad call was rationing personal protective equipment, or PPE, instead of giving it to everyone who worked with sick residents.

ABLORDEPPEY: People who are going to take care of somebody who is exhibiting the COVIC symptoms have no mask. What kind of practice is this?

WASSER: In fact, documents show that Ablordeppey was written up for wearing PPE without permission. That same weekend, the symptomatic veteran's test results came back positive, and the Soldiers' Home sent out a press release saying he was properly quarantined. But according to Joe Ramirez, another CNA at the Soldiers' Home, the man's three roommates were just moved into other rooms on the memory care floor.

JOE RAMIREZ: He was still kept in the unit in a room by himself, but a door still open. I don't consider that isolation.

WASSER: Ramirez says the Soldiers' Home has been chronically short-staffed for years, and there weren't enough CNAs on duty to keep the veteran from interacting with others on the floor. The staffing problems at the home got even worse in late March when employees started calling out sick. It's unclear who made the call, but Ablordeppey says someone in management decided to combine a unit of patients who had been exposed to the virus with another unit that hadn't so that fewer staff were needed in any given shift.

ABLORDEPPEY: Even a common person who has no degree would never do this.

WASSER: In order to fit everyone on one floor, staff had to cram extra beds into bedrooms and move nine people into a dining room. Ablordeppey says this is when the virus truly got out of control and the body bags started piling up in the refrigerated truck parked outside the home.

On Monday, March 30, the true extent of the outbreak finally came to light. Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker called in the National Guard and put the facility superintendent, a retired Marine named Bennett Walsh, on paid administrative leave. Walsh did not respond to a request for comment, but he did say last month that he asked state officials for help and got no response. The state agency that oversees the Soldiers' Home won't say when it learned about the problem.

Within days of the story breaking, multiple state and federal authorities opened investigations into the home. Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey is one of them. Here she is on Fox News last month.

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MAURA HEALEY: What is alleged is that staff never had the PPE to begin with, that patients - residents were not properly isolated and that the facility was late and delayed reporting to state authorities who might've been able to provide assistance.

WASSER: We don't know yet whether any of the inquiries will yield civil or criminal charges. But with more than a third of the home's veterans dead, Healey says she isn't ruling anything out.

For NPR News, I'm Miriam Wasser in Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.