Virus notes: Healey to probe Holyoke vets home outbreak

Liability protection for COVID-19 workers; supermarket occupancy limited

ATTORNEY GENERAL Maura Healey will launch her own probe into what went wrong at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, separate from an investigation being conducted by an attorney recruited by Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration.

“Our office is launching an investigation into Holyoke Soldiers’ Home to find out what went wrong at this facility and determine if legal action is warranted,” Healey said in a statement. “My heart goes out to the families who lost loved ones under these tragic circumstances.”

Baker already tapped attorney Mark Pearlstein to conduct an investigation into the COVID-19 outbreak at the Holyoke home, looking at the facility’s management and oversight. The attorney general’s office has authority to look at criminal and civil violations of state law.

As of Wednesday, 27 veterans had died at the home, at least 20 of whom had tested positive for COVID-19. Another 62 veteran residents tested positive for the virus along with 68 staff. It apparently took several days after the first death for the outbreak to be reported to state officials. Home superintendent Bennett Walsh has been placed on paid administrative leave, and the state sent in a new leader and team of medical experts to take over the home.

Baker, asked on Wednesday about Healey’s review, said he is “appalled” by what took place at the facility and the lack of follow-through on reporting protocols, which is why he brought on Pearlstein. “Obviously, the attorney general has particular oversight responsibilities and we welcome her review,” Baker said.

Baker said he has had two conversations with Pearlstein so far in which he said to let him know if Pearlstein has any problems accessing any person or any information. He declined to comment further on that investigation’s progress. “I’m a big believer in letting investigations investigate,” Baker said.

Baker acts to protect health care workers from liability

Gov. Charlie Baker took steps on Wednesday to protect health care workers from civil liability as they respond to the coronavirus pandemic.

“During this pandemic we’re in unprecedented times when providers may be forced to make difficult decisions, and we’re asking them to operate in conditions they never planned for,” Baker said. “We need to make sure the fear of getting sued doesn’t prevent them from doing what they need to do to treat as many people as possible,” Baker said.

The federal government already passed the Public Readiness and Emergency Preparedness Act, which gives liability protection to some individuals working in COVID-19 response. Baker’s order uses that bill to extend liability protection to health care workers and facilities that distribute and administer testing, drugs, and medical devices for the diagnosis and treatment of COVID-19.

Baker also filed a bill on Wednesday that would extend the protections beyond those included in the federal law, to protect health care workers from civil liability if the care they provide is affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The bill covers doctors, nurses, and emergency medical technicians and also offers protections to health care workers who are staffing field medical stations, like those at the DCU Center in Worcester and the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center. It covers areas of care beyond the direct COVID-19 response that is covered by the federal law.

“We need to ensure that fear of liability will not prevent the Commonwealth and its medical institutions from acting decisively to deliver the kind of medical response we need during this pandemic,” Baker wrote in a filing letter to legislators.

The immunity will apply as long as a health care provider is acting in good faith in conformance with state laws, and is not acting negligently or recklessly.

New rules lower occupancy at grocery stores 

Grocery stores across Massachusetts will have to operate at 40 percent of their standard occupancy under new guidance from the Baker administration. 

The new rule is aimed at preventing further spread of COVID-19. Each store must only have 40 percent of the people listed on its occupancy permit so that in-store social distancing can continue while “preserving sufficient access for the public to supplies of food and necessities,” according to the rule. Grocery stores were declared essential businesses several weeks ago by Gov. Charlie Baker. 

Stores with a maximum occupancy of 25 persons or less are exempt from the new rule. Local boards of health will be entrusted with enforcing the measure, and will be consulting with stores to monitor how many people are moving through the store. 

Grocery stores are being asked to count how many people are entering and exiting throughout the day. Staff will monitor any waiting lines outside to ensure customers are maintaining a six-foot distance from each other. The guidance requires that local law enforcement be notified and consulted if a line forms outside of the store, or other physical security concerns arise. 

Meet the Author

Shira Schoenberg

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

Meet the Author

Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a long-time Latina reporter in Massachusetts. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a breaking news reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, incarceration, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a long-time Latina reporter in Massachusetts. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a breaking news reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, incarceration, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

The move comes two weeks after the Baker administration required grocery stores to set up social distancing gaps at checkout counters. A woman who worked as a cashier at Market Basket in Salem and as a security guard at a Lynn Walmart died over the weekend of COVID-19. 

The grocery store order was signed by the state public health commissioner, Dr. Monica Bharel, who is herself quarantined at home after testing positive for coronavirus.