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MA Secretary of Veterans’ Services resigns ahead of Holyoke Soldiers’ Home coronavirus outbreak report

This May 2018 file photo shows an aerial view of the Holyoke Soldiers' Home in Holyoke, Mass. The superintendent of the veteran's home was removed from his duties Monday, March 30, 2020 after several residents died, including some who had tested positive for COVID-19 and others whose results are pending. (Patrick Johnson / The Republican file/TNS)

Secretary of Veterans’ Services Francisco Urena says he has resigned ahead of the release of an independent investigation into the coronavirus outbreak at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home that has resulted in the deaths of dozens of veterans.

Urena, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran and Purple Heart recipient who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom, confirmed to the Herald late Tuesday night that he had submitted his resignation.

“I’ve been asked to resign and yes I did,” he said.

Ninety-seven veterans have died at the facility since March — 76 of whom tested positive for the novel virus. Eighteen of those 97 veterans who died tested negative, two were clinically recovered when they passed, and one’s status was unknown, according to the state.

The virus’ rapid spread through the facility led the state to suspend superintendent Bennett Walsh and to bring in outside medical professionals and the National Guard.

It also triggered several state and federal investigations. Gov. Charlie Baker tapped former federal prosecutor Mark W. Pearlstein in April to lead an independent investigation into the home’s coronavirus response. Pearlstein’s report could be released as early as Wednesday.

The timeline of when state officials learned of the deaths at the soldiers’ home is a major source of contention.

State officials, including Baker, have repeatedly claimed they didn’t learn of the deaths at the Holyoke facility until March 29, at which point they placed Walsh on leave, installed new leadership and began testing all veterans and staff. The governor’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Urena’s resignation Tuesday night.

But Walsh’s attorney provided documents last month showing the superintendent alerted Urena the night he learned a veteran had tested positive for COVID-19 on March 21 and filed a critical incident report — the state’s mechanism for flagging issues at facilities it oversees — with the Department of Veterans Services and the Executive Office of Health and Human Services the next day.

Coronavirus has devastated many long-term care facilities, but Holyoke remains one of the deadliest outbreaks. Dozens of workers were sickened — the state said in a regular update Tuesday that all employees have recovered — and the virus’ quick spread through the 247-bed facility prompted complaints about inadequate patient isolation and access to personal protective equipment.

Families have demanded answers — and more funding for the facility — from the state. And the Massachusetts chapter of the Disabled American Veterans previously called on the Baker administration to place Urena, who formerly served as the veterans’ services officer in Boston and Lawrence, on leave.


© 2020 the Boston Herald