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11 die at Holyoke veterans hospital; at least 5 from coronavirus

Cleaners prepared to enter the  Soldiers' Home in Holyoke where several people have died due to coronavirus on Tuesday.
Cleaners prepared to enter the Soldiers' Home in Holyoke where several people have died due to coronavirus on Tuesday.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Eleven veterans at the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke have died this month, with at least five of the deaths due to the coronavirus, according to a state official.

Eleven other veterans and five staff have tested positive for the virus, and 25 veterans are awaiting test results as the disease has swept through the state-run health care facility and residence for veterans, located on a hill just off Interstate 91.

The deaths occurred between March 1 and Monday. The total attributed to the deadly virus could double pending the receipt of test results, the state official said.

Bennett Walsh, the home’s superintendent, has been placed on leave, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services. Val Liptak, a registered nurse and chief executive officer of Western Massachusetts Hospital, has assumed responsibility for the Soldiers’ Home.

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The National Guard has been asked to support on-site, expedited testing for coronavirus at the facility. In accordance with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, residents have been isolated and employees have been advised to quarantine until they are asymptomatic, according to the state official.

Families of residents who have been tested are being notified of the results.

The deadly outbreak stunned Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse.

Soldiers' Home in Holyoke.
Soldiers' Home in Holyoke.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

“It has been devastating to hear about the full extent of the COVID-19 outbreak at the Soldiers’ Home,” Morse said in a statement. “While I am grateful that the state is now taking swift action to ensure residents and staff get necessary care and treatment, I am grief-stricken for those we have already lost, and my heart goes out to their families and friends.”

State officials have assembled "an on-site clinical command team comprised of medical, epidemiological, and operational experts responsible for the comprehensive and rapid response to the outbreak of COVID-19,” said Dan Tsai, deputy secretary of Health and Human Services.

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"It is imperative that the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home provide a safe environment for the veteran residents, and the dedicated staff who serve them,'' Tsai said in a statement.

The command team, which held its first meeting Monday, will be composed of clinical operations experts from Commonwealth Medicine, which is the public service consulting and operations division of UMass Medical School; epidemiologists from the Department of Public Health’s Bureau of Infectious Diseases and Lab Sciences; the medical director at MassHealth; leadership from the Soldiers’ Home in Chelsea; and other clinical, operational, and logistical experts, including resources from the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency.

National Guard members stacked medical supplies onto a dolly to take into the Soldiers' Home in Holyoke.
National Guard members stacked medical supplies onto a dolly to take into the Soldiers' Home in Holyoke. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

According to its website, the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke has a 247-bed long-term care nursing facility and a 30-room residence for veterans who need less-intensive care. The home was established in 1952.

The Soldiers’ Home had instituted precautions against the virus, according to information provided by state officials.

Officials had restricted visitors to the facility, taken the temperature of employees as they entered the building and of residents every day, added hand-sanitation stations for employees throughout the facility, and disinfected and treated common areas throughout the day.

Every employee also had been provided with protective gear upon entrance to the facility, and movement had been restricted for residents in the long-term care facility and the independent living quarters, according to the state.

On Friday, the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency distributed tents as a single point-of-entry screening site for state-operated facilities operated around the clock, including Holyoke, according to state officials. Instructions had been to give personal protective equipment to each employee after screening and before entering the facility. ​

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Richard Purcell, a past commander of American Legion Post 25 in Holyoke, said the post used to host bingo games at the Soldiers’ Home. Purcell, an Army veteran who served from the 1970s to the 1990s, ending his career after a deployment during Operation Desert Storm, said the facility houses many veterans from the Korean and Vietnam wars, as well as younger veterans with disabilities. The residents include men and women, he said.

“They served our country. Some of them weren’t whole when they got” to the Soldiers’ Home, he said. “Some of them were wounded, some of them were in bad shape when they got there. . . . They gave their utmost for their nation, and they should receive the utmost care.”

Morse, the city’s mayor, asked that all flags in Holyoke be lowered to half-staff Tuesday to honor the veterans who died.

“This is a difficult day for our city, and it is almost certain that more difficult days will follow. Today is a painful reminder that while many people will experience mild symptoms or no symptoms at all, there are those among us who are at much higher risk, and we must be vigilant in our care for ourselves to ensure the safety of all,” Morse said.

“I call on all Holyokers to consider your actions, to be sure to follow social distancing to the best of your abilities, to contact your friends and loved ones, and to take care of yourselves both physically and mentally. While we need distance from each other now, we are in this fight together,” the mayor said.

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Globe correspondent Jeremy Fox contributed to this report.


Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at brian.macquarrie@globe.com.