11 die at Holyoke Soldiers’ Home amid COVID-19 outbreak

Superintendent at state-run facility placed on paid leave

BENNETT WALSH, the superintendent of the state-run Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, was placed on paid administrative leave on Monday, after 11 residents died at the home amid an outbreak of COVID-19.

Of those residents who died, five tested positive for COVID-19, five have test results pending, and the virus status of the other person is unknown.

Another 11 veteran residents tested positive for COVID-19 and test results are pending for 25 others. In addition, five staff members tested positive.

“It is imperative that the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home provide a safe environment for the veteran residents, and the dedicated staff who serve them,” Health and Human Services Deputy Secretary Dan Tsai said in a statement. Tsai said Walsh was placed on leave “effective immediately.”

Val Liptak, the current CEO of Western Massachusetts Hospital, took over administration of the 247-bed facility as of 4:45 p.m. Monday. The state put out a press release about the removal of Walsh at 6:02 p.m. but did not mention the high number of deaths at the facility. The deaths occurred between Wednesday and Monday.

Tsai and officials at the state Department of Veterans’ Services said the state put in place an onsite clinical command team made up of medical, epidemiological, and operational experts who will be responsible for responding to the COVID-19 outbreak. The new team met for the first time Monday. It will put in place protocols that align with state and federal public health guidance on things like isolation, quarantining, and cleaning.

The National Guard will be on site at the home to test residents and expedite the results.

According to state officials, the sick residents have been isolated, and employees have been told to quarantine. Families of residents who were tested are being notified.

Walsh did not respond to a message left on his cell phone or an email.

“It’s just devastating news to see and to hear, and it will likely get worse,” said Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse. “I think the state is taking the appropriate measures today. I do think it’s too late.”

Morse said he learned Friday that one case had turned into 11 cases, and he found out over the weekend how extensive the virus’s spread was. Morse said there was clearly “improper containment” that allowed virus to spread throughout the facility.

Morse said he spoke to Walsh Sunday and “didn’t sense a sense of urgency,” leading him to contact Veterans Services Secretary Francisco Urena and then Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito.

Gov. Charlie Baker tweeted Monday night, “As someone who has visited the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home on many occasions to catch up with staff and residents, I am heartbroken by today’s news. The loss of these residents to COVID-19 is a shuddering loss for us all.”

According to the home’s website, it is a state-funded, fully accredited health care facility that offers veterans health care, hospice care, full-time residential accommodations, an on-site dental clinic, veterans assistance center, and a multi-service outpatient department.  It was established in 1952.

Elected officials from the Holyoke area are pledging to seek more information. Rep. John Velis, a Westfield Democrat running for state Senate who is a major in the US Army Reserves, said he needs to know more. “Obviously, this is the most sacred place there is,” Velis said. “I’m trying to find out more, I want to know more, and this is obviously something that demands everybody’s attention.”

Rep. Aaron Vega, a Holyoke Democrat, said protocols to quarantine residents and keep residents and staff safe were not properly in place. He questioned the state’s response. “It’s a little troubling that if the state knew that there was a death that they weren’t in there supporting Bennett and his team early on,” Vega said.

Steven Connor, director of Central Hampshire Veterans Services, said when he heard about the first case last week, “My instinct was this is not going to be good because everybody lives so close and this could spread really fast.”

Connor said he has long worked to get people into the home, including his own brother, but he worried in recent years that the home was short on funding, and it was overcrowded and understaffed. Connor was among those who helped raise the alarm about the virus’s spread.

Many of the residents in the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home are older veterans with serious medical needs – exactly the population where COVID-19 is most lethal.

Sen. Jo Comerford, a Northampton Democrat who is leading the Senate’s response to the virus, said nursing homes generally are places where people are very vulnerable due to a range of health complexities. “They have people coming in and out, this virus is transmittable through contact,” Comerford said.

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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.

Of the situation at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, Comerford said, “It’s desperately sad.”