One more veteran has died of coronavirus at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, bringing the total of deaths of residents in three weeks to 33.
An additional 88 residents at the state-owned home for elderly and infirm veterans have contracted COVID-19, test results on 11 more are pending and 78 employees are positive for the disease. Seven other residents have died in the past three weeks from other causes, officials for the state Executive Office of Health and Human Services said.
More than 55 percent of the veterans have contracted the illness since the first resident tested positive for COVID-19 on March 21. At the time there were about 210 people living in the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home.
After learning on March 29 that eight residents had died on the rapidly-spreading virus and many more were suspected to be infected, Health and Human Services Deputy Superintendent Daniel Tsai sent a team to examine the problems at the home the next day. On March 30 officials placed Superintendent Bennett Walsh on paid administrative leave and tapped Val Liptak, a registered nurse and CEO of Western Massachusetts Hospital in Westfield, to take over the administrative role.
Walsh has said any accusation of wrong-doing or mismanagement is “outrageous.” In a written statement released on Thursday Walsh said he kept state officials updated on the home’s situation as it daily grew more desperate and requested help from the National Guard but was denied. Local and state officials have said they were not aware of the extent to which the virus was spreading.
In addition officials for the union that represents staff confirmed when they talked to Marylou Sudders, secretary of Health and Human Services, over the March 28th weekend she said she was not aware so many people had been infected.
The Board of Trustees for the Soldiers’ Home was scheduled to meet on Saturday morning presumably to hold a hearing to discuss terminating Walsh. That meeting was cancelled after a Hampden Superior Court judge approved a request for a temporary restraining order to block the meeting. A second meeting scheduled for Tuesday has also been cancelled.
Three independent investigations have been launched into the problems at the Soldiers Home by Gov. Charlie Baker, state Attorney General Maura Healey and U.S. Attorney Andrew E. Lelling. State legislators are also planning to hold a hearing to find out how the virus spread so quickly and how to prevent it from occurring again when lawmakers return to session.
Meanwhile, staffing levels at the home have increased to meet or exceed national ratios, with the regular staff augmented by medically-trained members of the National Guard. In addition, four contracted staff and one nursing executive started working at the Soldiers Home Monday to provide proper care for the residents, state officials said.
Staff working at the Soldiers’ Home continue to receive extra education on infection control if any lapses are noted. New staffing patterns have been developed for all units to ensure they align with proper standards and to prevent any further spreading of the disease. All employees are also required to wear masks and other personal protective equipment, officials said.
Additional social workers and case management nursing staff from the Behavioral Health Network and Riverside Community Care have also been brought on board to work with families of veterans who said they have struggled with communications since the home was closed to all visitors on March 14 to prevent the spread of the virus, officials said.
The Military Friends Foundation, which recently launched a COVID-19 Military Families Relief Fund effort to raise money, is donating funds to purchase iPads for the Holyoke and Chelsea Soldiers’ Homes so families can get in touch with residents easier, officials said.
At the Chelsea Soldiers’ Home, eight veterans have died of COVID-19 and 23 additional residents have been infected with the coronavirus. A total of 217 veterans have tested negative, officials said.
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