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2 charged in Holyoke Soldiers’ Home COVID outbreak that killed 76 veterans: ‘They were the ultimate decision makers’

Bennett Walsh, superintendent of the Holyoke Soldiers Home, speaking at a memorial service in 2017. (Don Treeger/Staff-Shot/TNS)
September 25, 2020

Holyoke Soldiers’ Home Superintendent Bennett Walsh and his former medical director could each face up to 50 years in state prison after being indicted Thursday by a statewide grand jury, according to Attorney General Maura Healey.

Walsh and Dr. David Clinton — once the top medical adviser at the Soldiers’ Home — were each charged with 10 criminal counts related to the deadly COVID-19 outbreak that claimed the lives of at least 76 elderly veterans.

They face five counts each of two charges: caretaker who wantonly or recklessly commits or permits bodily injury to an elder or disabled person, and a similarly worded charge pertaining to the alleged “abuse, neglect or mistreatment” of an elderly or disabled person.

Healey said each count of the first charge carries a potential sentence of 10 years in state prison.

“We charged these two because they were the ultimate decision makers,” Healey said during an announcement Friday morning.

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She said the investigation is ongoing, and did not discount more charges or additional defendants.

Tracy Miner, a Boston attorney representing Walsh, said the attorney general’s case is a misguided attempt by the government to assign blame.

“It is unfortunate that the attorney general is blaming the effects of a deadly virus that our state and federal governments have not been able to stop on Bennett Walsh,” Miner said in a statement.

“Mr. Walsh has spent his entire life in the service of our country, first in active duty in the Marine Corps for 24 years and then serving other veterans as the Superintendent of the Holyoke Soldiers Home. He, like other nursing home administrators throughout the Commonwealth and nation, could not prevent the virus from coming to the Home or stop its spread once it arrived there,” she said.

Walsh was appointed head of the state-run Soldiers’ Home in 2016 after the retirement and resignation of the facility’s two top administrators over what they described as deficiencies in staffing and funding. He was suspended in late March as the death toll began to climb and the state sent in an emergency response team to quell the spread. Walsh was later fired by Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders and Gov. Charlie Baker.

A lawyer for Walsh recently won a motion in Hampden Superior Court challenging the firing, arguing state officials lacked the authority under state law. Walsh’s termination will now be in the hands of the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home Board of Trustees. The board has scheduled a special meeting for Sept. 30.

Clinton also lost his part-time job at the facility over the outbreak.

Healey put a fine point on the criminal charges, telling reporters that each charge is linked to an individual veteran and the investigation homed in on the decision to combine two dementia units as the outbreak erupted. Nine men from the 42-resident unit who were thought to be asymptomatic were moved to beds in a dining room.

But Healey said some of the nine veterans were incorrectly categorized as asymptomatic, and were in fact carrying the disease. She noted that the veterans’ beds were just feet from each other in the dining room, and directly adjacent to a room where others were obviously suffering from the virus.

“We allege that several of the residents that Holyoke Soldiers’ Home categorized as ‘asymptomatic’ were, in fact, showing symptoms consistent with COVID-19 at the time of the consolidation or shortly thereafter,” Healey said. “The residents in the consolidated unit were allegedly mingling together, regardless of COVID-19 status. We allege that this decision was reckless from an infection control perspective and placed the asymptomatic veterans at an increased risk of contracting COVID-19.”

Healey said during Friday morning’s press briefing that of the five veterans tied to the charges, three contracted the virus, one died, and two more did not contract the disease.

Healey’s investigation drew from a lengthy report by Boston attorney Mark Pearlstein and commissioned by Baker in the thick of the crisis. Released on June 24, Pearlstein’s report denounced the decision to combine two dementia units as “baffling and catastrophic,” and “the opposite of infection control.”

Attorneys for Walsh have said Chief Nursing Officer Vanessa Lauziere made the call to hastily combine the dementia units because they were drastically short-staffed.

Lauziere resigned over the deaths. Healey would not comment on why Lauziere or other staff were not charged. Francisco Ureña, secretary of the state’s Department of Veterans’ services and Walsh’s boss at the time of the outbreak, resigned the day before the Pearlstein report was released. He has not been charged.

Miner argues more responsibility for the crisis at the Soldiers’ Home should lie with the state.

“At all times, Mr. Walsh relied on the medical professionals to do what was best for the veterans given the tragic circumstances of a virus in a home with veterans in close quarters, severe staffing shortages, and the lack of outside help from state officials,” she said. “The attorney general should not be scapegoating Mr. Walsh, who was on the front lines trying his best to do whatever he could to help the Veterans of the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, including asking for help from state officials and the National Guard, which arrived much too late.”

A separate investigation by the U.S. attorney’s office is pending.

The COVID-19 outbreak at the Soldiers’ Home also launched the formation of a local, grassroots coalition calling for widespread reforms and renovations at the facility, prompted lawsuits in state and federal courts and gave rise to a legislative oversight committee to scrutinize the response to the epidemic.

State Sen. John Velis, a Democrat from Westfield, is a member of the oversight committee and has emerged as an advocate for families impacted by the outbreak. He declined comment on the indictments Friday.

“I’m anxious to begin our first legislative oversight committee hearing next month, because at the the end of the day my firm belief is we need to do everything we can to make sure this never happens again,” Velis said.

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© 2020 MassLive.com