COVID-19 crimes may be tough to prove

“Utterly baffling” was how Mark Pearlstein, the attorney retained by Gov. Charlie Baker to investigate what went wrong at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, described the decision to combine 42 veterans with dementia – some of them infected with COVID-19 – into a single unit with a capacity to hold 25.

Attorney General Maura Healey on Friday called the decision criminal, and filed charges against the superintendent and medical director of the facility for criminal neglect and causing or permitting serious bodily injury.

“We allege that this never should have happened,” Healey said, building her case around five asymptomatic individuals who were crammed into the merged dementia unit. Three of the five contracted COVID-19 and one died. A total of 76 veterans died at the Soldiers’ Home.

Healey said she believes the criminal charges are the first ever to target an operator of a nursing home during the COVID-19 pandemic. She said she is exploring similar charges against other nursing home operators across the state.

As gut-wrenching as the situation at the Soldiers’ Home was, the criminal charges may not be a slam dunk. The defendants are likely to argue that on March 27 they were doing the best they could dealing with a highly contagious virus in a facility full of extremely vulnerable people.

Healey isn’t the only one trying to assess blame. The Boston Globe, in a three-part series that ended Tuesday, laid much of the blame for the thousands of nursing home deaths in Massachusetts on the administration of Gov. Charlie Baker. The newspaper’s Spotlight Team reported that the Baker administration focused nearly all of its attention in the early days of the pandemic on preventing hospitals from being overrun with COVID-19 patients and missed the threat looming inside nursing homes.

As nursing home operator Rich Bane told the Globe (and CommonWealth in mid-April), the Baker administration early on during the COVID-19 crisis was “guarding the wrong man,” with results that were devastating.

“The state’s early response to the predictable crisis in the nursing home population was halting, chaotic, and in the end, disastrous,” the Spotlight Team reported. “It showed a striking lack of foresight and urgency as the virus, in the critical period between mid-March and early April, infiltrated nursing homes, eventually killing thousands of senior citizens.”

As of Monday, 6,045 nursing home residents have died of COVID-19 in Massachusetts. Nursing home deaths represent 66 percent of all COVID-19 deaths in the state.

Baker himself didn’t do an interview with the Globe. But Marylou Sudders, the secretary of health and human services, defended the administration much as lawyers for those charged at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home are likely to defend their clients.

Sudders said administration officials, like their counterparts elsewhere, were slow to recognize the danger of contagion spreading from nursing home staffers and residents without symptoms. But once they caught on, she said, the state stopped trying to move COVID patients leaving hospitals into nursing homes and accelerated testing using National Guard units. There were glitches along the way, she said, but that’s what happens when rushing to deal with a disease about which little is known.

“There’s no playbook to a pandemic,” Sudders said. “You need to make the very best decisions, sometimes with incomplete information, as quickly as possible. You don’t have the luxury of time in a pandemic.”

BRUCE MOHL

 

FROM COMMONWEALTH

Try, try again. A number of legislative races this year feature rematches between candidates who have opposed each other in the past.

Blacks and Latinos are migrating from Boston to Gateway Cities in search of cheaper housing, according to a report from MassINC.

Opinion: Juanita Gibson says East Boston can learn from the mistakes made in the Seaport.

FROM AROUND THE WEB             

 

BEACON HILL

Lawmakers are pushing the Baker administration to provide extra unemployment benefits to low-income workers who are ineligible for a $300 weekly federal payment because they get less than $100 a week in state benefits. (The Salem News)

The nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett for the Supreme Court is causing abortion rights advocates in Massachusetts to accelerate their push to pass the ROE Act, to expand state abortion rights. (Gloucester Daily Times)

A report issued by the Center for State Policy Analysis at Tufts University urges the Legislature to seek an advisory opinion from the Supreme Judicial Court on whether ranked-choice voting — which would be ushered in under a question on the November ballot — would be legal. (Boston Globe)

MUNICIPAL MATTERS

Springfield police detective Florissa Fuentes sues the city after she is fired for liking and sharing on social media a picture of her niece holding an offensive sign at a Black Lives Matter rally. (MassLive) Meanwhile, a Springfield mayoral aide, Darryl Moss, is under investigation for violating the city’s social media policy, apparently for posts related to Black Lives Matter and police shootings. (MassLive)

East Boston district City Councilor Lydia Edwards says the community won significant concessions from the developer of Suffolk Downs — and will continue to press for more benefits in the years that it takes for the massive project to unfold. (Boston Globe)

HEALTH/HEALTH CARE

Experts are expressing worry over increases in Massachusetts coronavirus cases and a testing positivity rate that has more than tripled since a month ago to 3 percent. (Boston Globe)

The third installment of the Boston Globe Spotlight series on nursing homes looks at how the five-star Belmont Manor Nursing and Rehabilitation Center became one of the worst hit facilities in the state when the COVID-19 epidemic took hold. The series also found potential discrimination against Medicaid recipients in the nursing home industry.

After months of disagreements over safe staffing levels, Massachusetts Nurses Association nurses and health care professionals at Morton Hospital have ratified a collective bargaining agreement with the hospital. (Taunton Gazette)

The White House pressured the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to play down the coronavirus risks of bringing school children back to classrooms. (New York Times)

WASHINGTON/NATIONAL/INTERNATIONAL

House Democrats release a scaled-back $2.2 trillion coronavirus response package. (NPR)

US House Ways and Means chairman Richard Neal says the New York Times report on President Trump’s tax returns bolsters the Ways and Means Committee’s argument in a lawsuit the committee filed to obtain Trump’s tax returns. (MassLive)

In a new story based on the tax returns, the Times reports that while Trump was bragging on “The Apprentice” of being a billionaire with unrivaled business acumen, his businesses were bleeding red ink — a situation that the paper says he essentially reversed by monetizing through the TV series his image as a successful businessman.

ELECTIONS

President Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden will meet tonight for the first of three presidential debates. (NPR) Biden has a history of both flops and sharp performances on the debate stage. (Boston Globe)

Newspaper endorsements in the presidential race are starting to be rolled out, with the Washington Post, to no great surprise, endorsing Joe Biden. More interesting is the Biden endorsement by the Chicago Tribune, which goes to great lengths to emphasize that it has not reflexively opposed President Trump — and even cheered several moves he’s made — but says “at the end of the day, Trump flopped in key areas of basic decency and discipline that did real harm to the country.”

A Washington Post/ABC News poll puts Biden ahead of Trump by nine points, 54-45, in the crucial battleground state of Pennsylvania. (Washington Post)

Advocates are continuing to push legislation that would allow candidates in Massachusetts to use campaign funds to defray child care costs. (Boston Globe)

The Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association is endorsing Republican Julie Hall in her race against Democrat Jake Auchincloss for the open Fourth Congressional District seat being vacated by Joe Kennedy. (Boston Herald)

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

Tonix Pharmaceuticals Holding Corp. a clinical-stage biopharmaceutical company, has purchased an approximately 40,000 square foot facility in the Dartmouth part of the New Bedford Business Park. (Standard-Times)

EDUCATION

An anonymous caller signed into a Norwell High ninth grade remote session and made several racially charged comments. (Patriot Ledger) 

With public schools learning remotely, families at in-person Catholic schools are left without district-sponsored busses. (MassLive)

A COVID-19 cluster at UMass Amherst grows to 18 students. (Daily Hampshire Gazette)

ARTS/CULTURE

Beyond Walls reimagines its annual street art festival in Lynn for this year. (Daily Item)

ENERGY/ENVIRONMENT

A machine gun range being proposed for Camp Edwards would be built over the Sagamore Lens, the largest in the Cape Cod aquifer and the main source of drinking water for the four towns on the Upper Cape. Before the project moves forward, it must secure the approval of a panel established to protect the water. (Cape Cod Times)

TRANSPORTATION

The Green Line extension will include a 1,400-foot viaduct for bicyclists. (Boston Globe)

CRIMINAL JUSTICE/COURTS

A spike in COVID-19 cases at the Middleton Jail, with 14 inmates and nine staff testing positive, leads to the suspension of in-person visitation and in-person court appearances. (Eagle-Tribune)

Berkshire County District Attorney Andrea Harrington releases a police watch list. (WBUR) Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins released a police watch list on Friday night. (CommonWealth)

MEDIA

The editorial staff of Washington Square News, a student newspaper at New York University, resigns in protest over its faculty advisor.