‘We owe it to the families of veterans and staff to find out what happened’
WESTFIELD – State Rep. John C. Velis, D – Westfield, is calling for an investigation into the COVID-19 outbreak at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home and death of 13 veterans.
Thirteen veterans died at the Home over the past week, with six confirmed COVID-19 cases and another five presumptive positives as of April 1. One cause of death is unknown, and one tested negative for COVID-19. Staff have also tested positive while others are presumed positive.
Velis, an active major in the U.S. Army Reserve and vice Chairman of the Veterans and Federal Affairs Joint Committee, said the situation was “shameful” and he and other legislators want a full investigation.
“An investigation must take place to be able to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” Velis said. “The system was too late for these 13 families, it cannot be too late anymore. There was a clear breakdown in communication and reporting of the severity of the information.”
Holyoke Soldiers’ Home Superintendent Bennett Walsh was put on paid administrative leave Monday and Val Liptak, the CEO of Western Massachusetts Hospital, has taken over administration of the home.
According to State House News Service, the facility’s residents are isolated and were told to quarantine themselves until they show no symptoms, the administration said, and the National Guard has been called in to help with on-site testing of all residents and to expedite the results.
“We have also implemented an onsite clinical command team comprised of medical, epidemiological, and operational experts responsible for the comprehensive and rapid response to the outbreak of COVID-19. All of these enhancements will build upon the existing protocols and work that align with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Department of Veterans Affairs, and Massachusetts Department of Public Health guidance,” Deputy Heath and Human Services Secretary Dan Tsai said in a statement.
The clinical command team put in charge of continuing the COVID-19 related protocols already in place and implementing new ones includes “clinical operations experts from Commonwealth Medicine, epidemiologists from the Department of Public Health’s Bureau of Infectious Diseases and Lab Sciences, the medical director at MassHealth, leadership from the Chelsea Soldiers’ Home, and other clinical, operational, and logistical experts, including resources from MEMA,” the administration said.
Velis, state Rep. Aaron Vega, D – Holyoke, and state Rep. Linda Campbell, D – 15th Essex and Chair of the Committee on Veterans and Federal Affairs, wrote a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Mary Lou Sudders and Veteran Services Secretary Francisco Urena. The letter demands a briefing on what allowed these tragic events to occur; where the breakdown in care and communication occurred; and what policies are in place for care facilities such as the Soldiers’ Home to inform state government directly when someone tests positive.
“We have families who are mourning the loss of loved ones when they weren’t even aware it had reached this point,” Velis said. “That is wholeheartedly unacceptable, and everyone has a right to know what happened. But before the fingers of blame are pointed at everyone, all the facts must be gathered.”
Velis is a regular presence at the Soldiers’ Home; visiting often and for a number of different reasons ranging from office hours to attending every event and even just stopping in to chat with the residents. Velis said that as a veteran, he holds the building, its residents, and its staff “very near” to his heart. He often encourages students to visit the Soldiers’ Home.
“When I speak to students and they tell me they’re going through a tough time I tell them to visit the Soldiers’ Home,” Velis said. “I tell them that every time I go there it immediately brightens my day because these are the men and women who epitomize everything that is truly exceptional about our great nation: selflessness, sacrifice, and patriotism.”
On March 27, the Board of Health notified the city of Holyoke that the original singular case that was widely reported last week had expanded to 11 cases. The Soldiers’ Home administration said it was working with the Department of Public Health on the situation.
It was discovered on Sunday evening that the situation at the Soldiers’ Home had become drastically worse, with eight deaths since last Wednesday. There were no public updates between the March 22 report of the positive COVID-19 case and the 11 deaths.
“We must find out if that was deliberate or unintentional and figure out how reporting structures can be strengthened to make sure our soldiers’ homes and similar services throughout the Commonwealth are not at risk of the same fate,” Velis said. “We owe it to the families of veterans and staff to find out what happened here and make sure they are all properly informed going forward.”
A hotline has been provided for family with service members who reside in the Soldiers’ Home to be able to get updates on how they’re doing. The number is (413) 552-4764.
Westfield Emergency Management Director Jim Wiggs said April 1 that the city’s Health Department is in regular contact with the administrators of Westfield’s assisted living and long-term care facilities.
“Deb Mulvenna from public health has spoken with them directly,” said Wiggs. “If they are running out of supplies, they will let us know. They have a direct line to us.”