Ex-Holyoke Soldiers’ Home superintendent disputes independent report

Attorney for Bennett Walsh says he acted with ‘honor and dignity’

AN ATTORNEY REPRESENTING ousted Holyoke Soldiers’ Home superintendent Bennett Walsh on Thursday disputed many of the central claims in an independent investigation that looked at what caused a massive coronavirus outbreak at the home, which killed 76 veterans.

Independent investigator Mark Pearlstein said the “most substantial error” made by home leaders was when they combined two dementia units as the virus was spreading, due to a lack of staffing. Health care workers described the move as “total pandemonium,” with conditions described as a “war zone” and staff feeling like they were walking veterans “to their death,” according to Pearlstein’s report.

But, according to William Bennett, an attorney representing Walsh, combining the two units was the “best decision that could be made under the circumstance.” Bennett said the decision was made to protect veterans, had no impact on the virus’s spread, and was “done in a way consistent with honor and dignity.”

The Pearlstein report was a 174-page, scathing look at what went wrong at the Soldier’s Home. Secretary of Veterans’ Services Francisco Urena has resigned, Walsh is fighting his termination in court, and three other top home officials have left their jobs.  The family of one veteran has sued Urena, Walsh, and other Soldiers’ Home officials, arguing that they are responsible for the veterans’ deaths.

Additional investigations are ongoing by Attorney General Maura Healey and US Attorney Andrew Lelling.

In a Thursday press conference in Springfield that lasted for more than an hour, Bennett made his own detailed critique of the report, attempting to deflect any blame from Walsh. It marked the first time an official at the home has offered a public defense of their actions since the Pearlstein report was released.

“They did a great job under great pressure with the sole purpose of protecting the veterans, and they did so with honor and dignity,” Bennett said of the Soldiers’ Home staff. “They should be applauded for the way they handled the situation.”

Bennett’s most detailed critique came in response to Pearlstein’s assertions that the decision to combine two dementia units, due to a staffing shortage, was “devastating” to veterans and created “deplorable” conditions.

On Friday, March 27, Bennett said, staff began calling in sick as soon as multiple positive COVID-19 tests results were reported at the home. He said Walsh realized he needed help and asked state officials in Boston, at the departments of Health and Human Services and Veterans Services, to call in the National Guard. But Bennett said Walsh’s request for assistance was denied – even though the state would bring in National Guard members three days later.

So staff measured the rooms to make sure there was enough space, made sure there was enough equipment to provide oxygen if needed, assessed each veteran, and divided them up based on health status. For example, a former dining room housed nine asymptomatic patients. The unit’s other seven rooms were set aside for hospice patients; symptomatic veterans; or veterans actively dying, with four to seven patients per room.

Despite assertions in Pearlstein’s report that the merging of the two units contributed to the virus’ spread, Bennett said because so many veterans were already infected, every veteran had already been sharing a room with someone who was infected. “The exposure to the virus was already there and was going to be there whether they combined it or not,” he said.

In another instance, Pearlstein’s report faulted Soldiers’ Home staff for not isolating the first veteran who tested positive for COVID-19, instead letting him live with three roommates and wander around the dementia unit.

Bennett said the home’s medical director did not want to risk moving a dementia patient – who could fall if left alone or wander around a unit and who needed access to one-on-one care – off of a locked unit into an area where he could be at risk or put other patients at risk. Walsh reached out to the Department of Public Health for guidance and was instructed on the use of hand hygiene and personal protective equipment. “There was no clear understanding of the best way to proceed,” Bennett said.

Bennett also disputed numerous other claims in the report, including contentions that staff lacked adequate personal protective equipment and claims that veterans on the combined dementia unit did not receive appropriate medical care.

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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.

Bennett also suggested that some Soldiers’ Home residents, who were moved to Holyoke Medical Center once a state team took over the home, may have contracted COVID-19 once they arrived at the hospital, rather than at the Soldiers’ Home.

Spiros Hatiras, president and CEO of Holyoke Medical Center, called that “inaccurate” and said, “It is unfortunate that he chose to use Holyoke Medical Center’s efforts to assist with the crisis at the Soldier’s Home in defending his client.”