Baker hires private lawyer to probe Holyoke Soldiers’ Home

15 residents have died amid a COVID-19 outbreak

GOV.  CHARLIE BAKER hired an independent attorney to investigate what went wrong at Holyoke Soldiers’ Home leading to a COVID-19 outbreak and related deaths.

Baker on Wednesday announced that his office hired former federal prosecutor Mark Pearlstein to conduct an independent investigation.

According to the governor’s office, the investigation will focus on the events inside the facility that led to the deaths and will look at the management and organizational oversight of the home’s response to COVID-19.

On Monday, Holyoke Soldiers’ Home superintendent Bennett Walsh was placed on paid administrative leave after 11 residents of the soldiers’ home died, at least five of whom tested positive for COVID-19. Officials at the home apparently did not report the deaths, the first of which occurred Wednesday, to state and local officials until Sunday.

The Soldiers’ Home is state-run, and Walsh was appointed to his position by Baker in 2016.

By Wednesday, 15 veterans had died at the Holyoke home, of whom six tested positive for COVID-19, two tests came back negative, one was unknown and six tests were pending. Another 11 veterans and seven staff tested positive for the virus.

On Monday, state officials placed Western Massachusetts Hospital CEO Val Liptak in charge of the home and brought in a team of medical and operational experts to stabilize the home. Staff are now isolating and quarantining ill or exposed residents, identifying who needs medical care onsite and who needs hospitalization, and establishing protocols for safety and infection control.

The National Guard was brought in to help with testing, and as of Wednesday all residents had been tested for COVID-19, with results expected within 24 hours. Efforts to test all staff were ongoing.

Pearlstein is a former federal prosecutor with the US Attorney’s Office in Boston. Between 1996 and 2000, he served as First Assistant US Attorney, supervising the civil and criminal divisions of the US Attorney’s office. He is now a partner at McDermott, Will and Emery, where his specialties include internal investigations.

Baker said Pearlstein will investigate “what happened, when it happened, what didn’t happen, when it didn’t happen.” Baker said he will make sure Pearlstein’s team has access to all the people and services they need “to get to the bottom of what took place.”

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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.

Baker said he expects “a thorough investigation by a trained professional who has an outstanding reputation and will give us what we want – an answer to what happened there and what went wrong and why and what we can do to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

Also Wednesday, the state’s other Soldiers’ Home, in Chelsea, reported its second death of a veteran with COVID-19. Two other residents have tested positive for the virus and one is awaiting test results. Two staff have tested positive and two have test results pending.

According to the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, officials at the Chelsea Soldiers’ Home have followed proper protocols for reporting cases and deaths. The home is quarantining residents in their wards, designating a specific ward for residents who have tested positive, and postponing all new admissions. Staff are taking daily temperatures of residents and regularly cleaning the facility. Visitors have been restricted to both Soldiers’ Homes since March 14.