Spotlight on Urena in Soldiers’ Home scandal

The scandal at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home is putting a spotlight on Secretary of Veterans’ Services Francisco Urena, with one veteran’s organization calling for his resignation – a development that is bringing the scandal closer to Gov. Charlie Baker.

Thursday morning, Daniel Stack, department adjutant for the Massachusetts chapter of Disabled American Veterans, told CommonWealth that Urena should be fired. “He should be relieved of command at this point in time,” Stack said.

As of Wednesday, 76 veterans had died who tested positive for COVID-19 at the state-run soldiers’ home and another 75 were infected. Four investigations are ongoing.

Baker and Secretary of Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders have said they found out about the outbreak Sunday evening, March 29, and by Monday had put Superintendent Bennett Walsh on leave and brought in a team of medical experts and the National Guard to take over operations.

New documents released Tuesday by Walsh’s attorney do not answer the most important questions: What went wrong that allowed the virus to spread? What can be changed? They also do not address whether Walsh mismanaged the home, whether the budget and staffing were adequate, or whether infection control protocols were in place and followed.

But they do add complexity to the question of who knew what when – and why Baker and Sudders didn’t know about the outbreak earlier. The documents show Walsh kept Urena (Baker’s cabinet secretary) and Health and Human Services Deputy Secretary Dan Tsai (Sudders’ number two) updated about the outbreak from March 22, the day after the first case was confirmed, through the day the first death was confirmed, March 27. In fact, Walsh asked state officials for help.

Urena, a US Marine Corps veteran who was previously in charge of veterans’ services for Boston and Lawrence, has already come under scrutiny.

WBUR reported earlier this month that the Legislature in 2016 created a new position to provide oversight of the Holyoke and Chelsea Soldiers’ Homes by someone with experience in health care management – which Urena does not have – and lawmakers were questioning why that position was never filled.

The Massachusetts chapter of Disabled American Veterans previously called for Urena to be put on leave during the investigations, but Stack said the new revelations confirm that Urena showed a lack of leadership. “Secretary Urena on day one should have contacted the governor directly to let him know what was happening so the governor could have taken appropriate action as needed, including bringing in the National Guard,” Stack said.

Baker refused to comment on the documents Wednesday, saying he was waiting for the conclusion of an investigation he commissioned by attorney Mark Perlstein, which he said should be completed soon. “There’s a lot of back and forth, which is not surprising given the significance of what happened there, but I’m waiting for Mark’s report,” Baker said.

Holyoke lawmakers have been critical, but cautious, as they await the investigations’ conclusions.

Rep. Aaron Vega, a Holyoke Democrat, told CommonWealth he was concerned about the administration’s approach to the Soldiers’ Home before the pandemic. For years, Vega said, Soldiers’ Home leaders would brief legislators about budget and staffing problems. Under Urena and Walsh, Vega said, lawmakers were simply told the budget was sufficient. Vega worried about an increased reliance on temporary staff, and lack of movement on implementing electronic medical records. “It just seems like there’s been a lack of communication across the board, it’s hard to say who communicated with who,” Vega said.

Rep. John Velis, a Democrat who will be sworn in Thursday as Holyoke’s state senator, said the new revelations “caused eyebrows to be raised.” Velis said he is anxious for the investigations to wrap up to get a holistic view of what happened. But he said it is significant that “in some form, communication was sent upstairs that we have a problem here and we need help.” Velis said a legislative inquiry may be necessary.

SHIRA SCHOENBERG


BEACON HILL

The Baker administration finally releases death data for individual nursing homes and positive test rates for each municipality, The data shows where the state’s elderly nursing home residents have been dying, and where they haven’t. Chelsea, one of the state’s hotspots, is an interesting case study. (CommonWealth) Attorney General Maura Healey reveals that she is investigating what went wrong at a Littleton nursing home where 26 residents died. (CommonWealth)

The state’s unemployment portal is now available in multiple languages, six weeks after Gov. Charlie Baker indicated the change would happen. (CommonWealth)

Michael Graham says Gov. Charlie Baker is plenty flawed, but remains the one guy standing between residents and a tax hike. He slams the “talk radio crowd” for dubbing him “Tall Deval,” name-calling that he says is “juvenile” and a “cheap shot,” without saying the “crowd” is largely fellow Herald columnist Howie Carr, who has hammered Baker continually with the nick-name. (Boston Herald)

MUNICIPAL MATTERS

Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone is capping attendance at faith services at 10, a standard below the state guideline of no more than 40 percent of usual capacity. (Boston Herald)

Auditor Suzanne Bump says the state must reimburse cities and towns more than $700,000 to cover the costs of early voting for the March 3 presidential primary. (Gloucester Daily Times)

HEALTH/HEALTH CARE

Seaview Retreat, a nursing home in Rowley, turns down $150,000 in state aid and refuses to test all its patients for COVID-19. Owner Stephen Comley says the tests have a high rate of inaccuracy and he won’t subject residents to the nasal swab unnecessarily. (Eagle-Tribune)

Questions are being raised about the effectiveness of a huge mask decontaminating facility unveiled to great fanfare last month by Partners HealthCare. (Boston Globe)

Brockton area hospitals are reopening for non COVID-19 related services. (The Enterprise) But in New Bedford, Southcoast Health has a second round of furloughs as the pandemic tanks revenue usually brought in by elective services. (Standard-Times)

WASHINGTON/NATIONAL/INTERNATIONAL

US Rep. Lori Trahan is among those lawmakers proposing giving coronavirus relief money to Minor League baseball teams and other struggling, small entertainment businesses. (MassLive)

President Trump marks the grim milestone of 100,000 US coronavirus deaths by saying it would have been 15 to 20 times worse “if I hadn’t done my job well.” (Washington Post)

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

The Telegram & Gazette launches a series on rebuilding America, with stories on how the pandemic will influence fine dining, live entertainment, higher education, car sales, the financial industry and a host of other sectors of the economy. Dentists start to move beyond emergency work. (WBUR)

Small business owners across the US say that the Payment Protection Program has too many restrictions to accommodate their industries. (WGBH)

The Boston-area housing market remains strong, with prices for home sales in April up, even though total number of sales were down. (Boston Globe) Despite the pandemic, housing inventories have plummeted on the Cape, and real estate agents hope the seller’s market continues. (Cape Cod Times)

Some state unemployment benefits checks could be delayed as the state responds to a nationwide scam. (MassLive)

EDUCATION

New guidelines are released governing the reopening of Massachusetts colleges and universities. (Telegram & Gazette) Lots of campuses say they are not equipped to do the level of testing and tracing recommended to contain the coronavirus. (Boston Globe)

Joan Vennochi rips Boston leaders for not having a plan to connect with roughly 10,000 public school students who have become “virtual dropouts.” (Boston Globe)

TRANSPORTATION

The great divide on the MBTA. General Manager Steve Poftak adopts a crowding standard that calls for 3 feet of social distancing between passengers, but the CDC says 6 feet is appropriate. Gov. Charlie Baker has said 6 feet is also appropriate in general. (CommonWealth)

CRIMINAL JUSTICE/COURTS

The Hampden County Jail in Ludlow goes into lockdown after eight inmates test positive for the coronavirus. (WBUR)

Local police officials decry the tactics used by Minneapolis police that killed George Floyd, a black man they were arresting on Monday night. (Boston Globe)

MEDIA

The Drudge Report has been linking to stories on an Armenian website that pastes plagiarized content from publications like the New York Times and The Atlantic. (Buzzfeed)

PASSINGS

Emilio DiPalma, a courtroom guard during the Nuremberg Trials of Nazi war criminals, dies at 93 of COVID-19 at Holyoke Soldiers’ Home. (Associated Press)