Two more veterans died Wednesday at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, the site of the state’s largest fatal outbreak of the coronavirus, as the home’s superintendent defended his handling of the crisis.
Fifteen people have died at the state-run home in recent weeks, at least six due to the virus. Pending tests could show a link to other deaths as well.
The Globe reported Tuesday that the outbreak was apparently kept secret, even as casualties accelerated, and employees were denied basic personal protection equipment after the facility reported positive cases. In response, Governor Charlie Baker said Wednesday the state had hired attorney Mark Pearlstein, a former federal prosecutor, to oversee a private investigation into the home and the events that led to the outbreak.
Bennett Walsh, the facility’s superintendent who was placed on leave when the fatal outbreak came to light, said in a statement Wednesday that he never concealed the outbreak.
“I am filled with grief and sorrow for all the veterans who have died and I extend my sincere sympathies to their families,” he said. “At no time did I, or anyone on my staff, hide, conceal or mislead anyone regarding the tragic impact of the virus and it would be outrageous for anyone to even think of doing such a thing.”
Walsh, who had not commented publicly on the outbreak since it came to light, said he was first notified March 21 that a veteran had tested positive for COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus.
“The next day my staff called the family of every veteran at the Soldiers Home to inform them that a veteran had tested positive for the coronavirus. Our focus then, and always, was on the veterans and their families," he said. "Thereafter we provided regular updates to state officials about the number of tests and the results of the testing.”
Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse has said neither city nor state officials were told about the extent of the outbreak before Sunday, and he reached out to Walsh only after receiving an anonymous tip about conditions at the home.
Walsh said COVID-19 test results often took three or four days, adding to the uncertainty.
“Governor Baker has stated that he will review all the facts to determine everything that happened at the Soldiers Home,” he said. “I am grateful that he will do so and I look forward to participating in that review.”
On Beacon Hill, a number of legislators were demanding answers. The chairs of the state Legislature’s veterans’ affairs committee said they were briefed as recently as Thursday by Veterans Secretary Francisco Urena’s office, which described a relatively pedestrian spread of the disease at the soldiers’ homes in Holyoke and Chelsea.
One employee in Chelsea had tested positive, and two people — one staffer and one resident — had tested positive in Holyoke. The resident was said to be in quarantine, state Representatives Linda Dean Campbell, John C. Velis, and Aaron Vega wrote in a letter to Urena and Marylou Sudders, the state’s secretary of health and human services.
“We are looking for a detailed explanation of why there was a breakdown of care for these veterans,” they wrote Tuesday, asking for a formal briefing from the Baker administration. “Additionally, we are looking for an explanation on what caused the breakdown in communication that allowed these deaths to go unreported until March 30.”
The sudden death toll in Holyoke — and the days-long lack of communication around it — is sowing frustration among lawmakers, who are now weighing their own investigation into the outbreak.
“They were obviously caught off guard,” Campbell said. “It seems in a sense that it was not understood by the leadership [in Holyoke] how contagious and how different this virus is. There just wasn’t that sense of urgency. And we certainly have to find out why that was the case."
Velis, the committee vice chair, said the Legislature should launch its own probe immediately and could explore holding hearings virtually.
“This is something I feel we have an obligation to do. We need to fully dive into this,” said Velis, a major in the Army reserves. “I want to know why  veterans lost their lives. And I want to know if anything could have been done to stop this.”
Representative Richard E. Neal said his 90-year-old uncle, Bob Garvey, lives at the Holyoke home and uses a wheelchair. Garvey has pneumonia, his son told Neal, but was still awaiting word Wednesday afternoon whether he had tested positive for COVID-19.
“I talked to his son yesterday right after I found out about this,” Neal said. “I’m up there once a month ... my uncle was always satisfied with the care he got. He’s been there three or four years, he’s a Korean War vet. My grandmother helped raise me — his mother. She was one of 14, and he was one of seven. And he’s the last.”
Neal expressed doubt the outbreak spun out of control only in recent days.
“All of a sudden, it seemed to happen over a weekend. I don’t think that’s true,” Neal said. “I think there were some other attending issues. It’s worthy of a full examination.”
Vega, a Holyoke Democrat, said he doubts money or staffing played a role in the outbreak. He said the administration met the facility’s budget requests each of the last two years.
“There’s always going to be friction. [The nurses] are always going to want to have more time with the residents. And I know there has been talk, was there enough money? I don’t see that correlation,” he said. “I feel like something wasn’t followed, a protocol. Even the local board of health wasn’t notified.”
Vega said Walsh, the facility’s superintendent, always struck him as “passionate and caring” of the veterans at the facility.
“I can’t imagine that whatever was going on in his head or whatever was happening in the five days there, that at the forefront of his mind wasn’t to care for those veterans,” he said. “But something fell through the cracks. I just don’t know.”
Naomi Martin of the Globe staff contributed to this report.