The suspended superintendent of the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home is accusing state officials of falsely claiming they were unaware of the severity of the coronavirus outbreak at the state-run facility, where 32 veterans have died since March 24.
Governor Charlie Baker said Wednesday at a press conference that he did not know about the outbreak until roughly 9 p.m. on March 29, at which point multiple veterans had died from the disease. Baker said he was “appalled” by the lack of reporting from the facility and that his office had acted quickly to deploy the National Guard after learning of the situation. He quickly placed superintendent Bennett Walsh on paid administrative leave.
But Walsh, who was appointed by Baker in May 2016 to oversee the facility, said he provided daily updates to state officials after the first veteran tested positive and requested additional staff support as the virus spread.
“There have been widespread reports in the media that state officials were kept in the dark about what was happening at the Soldiers’ Home during the COVID-19 crisis. These reports are false,” Walsh wrote in a statement provided Thursday to the Globe. “We provided updates on a daily basis, sometimes multiple times a day. These updates were by phone, text, email, conference calls and official report forms. These updates were made at various times to the staffs of the Secretary of Veteran Services, the Executive Office of Health and Human Services and the Department of Public Health.”
The accusations come on the same day that the facility reported five new veteran deaths, bringing the death toll to 32. Twenty-eight of those deaths have been linked to the coronavirus. Meanwhile, 69 other veterans have tested positive, seven of whom were negative in the first round of testing. At least 68 staff members also have been infected. One nursing assistant is on a ventilator in intensive care, according to union officials.
“It is very disappointing to me that during this time of unspeakable horror the staffs at EOHH, DVS and DPH have remained silent and have let the lie that they didn’t know what was going on persist," he added.
The facility has also come under fire for its internal quarantine procedures during the outbreak. The Globe reported that after the first veteran began to exhibit coronavirus symptoms, the short-staffed facility combined the man’s unit with another, leaving 40 men crowded into a wing, with nearly a dozen sleeping in a dining room. That decision, employees said, was one of several grave missteps that allowed the virus to race virtually unchecked through the 250-bed facility.
In his statement, Walsh said he notified state officials about the staffing shortages and ran the consolidation procedure by the Department of Public Health.
“The staff shortage was so acute, and the number of veterans with known or suspected Covid-19 so large, that the medical staff was forced to close some areas and place these men in the same unit," Walsh wrote. “This action to 'cohort’ the veterans was reviewed with the Department of Public Health on Wednesday, March 25 and accomplished on Friday, March 27.”
That same day, Walsh said, he requested that National Guard medical personnel be sent to the facility. That request was denied, he said.
“We also notified state officials that we were in a crisis mode regarding staff shortages. 25 percent of the workforce was not reporting to work," he wrote. “These work shortages, and the knowledge that our veterans were extremely vulnerable to the virus, were taking a toll on the staff who had reported for duty. I requested trained grief support counselors to assist our staff who were dealing with the hardest hit units.”
“State officials knew that Holyoke needed as much help as possible,” he added. “No one was kept in the dark.”
The state’s Executive Office of Health and Human Services and the Department of Veterans Services did not respond to requests for comment about Walsh’s account.
Baker and Attorney General Maura Healey have launched separate investigations to review the events that led to the deadly outbreak, the state’s largest to date. Walsh said he has been interviewed twice by investigators and is cooperating fully.
Last week, Baker named Val Liptak, chief executive of Western Massachusetts Hospital, as interim superintendent of the facility and deployed a National Guard contingent to expedite coronavirus testing, distribute personal protective equipment, and relieve overburdened nurses.
More than a week after the outbreak was made public, the facility was still plagued with dire staff and resource shortages, the Globe has reported. Infected staff who were not exhibiting symptoms were still being required to report for work, risking an even wider outbreak, according to several workers.
On Thursday morning, nurses arrived to find that there were no more N95 masks or face shields and that they’d be running out of protective gowns by the weekend, according to Andrea Fox of the Massachusetts Nurses Association.