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Justice Department opens civil rights investigation into coronavirus deaths at Holyoke Soldiers’ Home

The Holyoke Soldiers' HomeErin Clark/Globe Staff

The Civil Rights Division of the US Department of Justice and Massachusetts US Attorney Andrew Lelling said Friday they have opened a civil rights investigation into the operations of the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke where 35 veterans have died since March 24, with 30 of them testing positive for COVID-19.

The entry by the federal law enforcement agencies is the third separate investigation into the state-run facility that the Globe reported was chronically short of staffing and supplies, both prior to the coronavirus pandemic and in the weeks since the virus has ravaged the ranks of retired servicemen there.

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Attorney General Maura Healey has said she has launched her own inquiry, “to find out what went wrong and determine if legal action is warranted,” while Governor Charlie Baker has tapped Mark Pearlstein, a lawyer and former federal prosecutor, to oversee the administration’s inquiry.

At a news conference Friday afternoon, Baker said the state welcomes Lelling’s participation, noting that the federal Department of Veterans Affairs also has a role to play at the home.

“I certainly believe that he’s got a position there where a review would be appropriate, if he deemed it as such,” Baker said.

Baker and Bennett Walsh, the man who was superintendent of the Holyoke facility until he was suspended by the governor last month, have engaged in an indirect battle over what top state officials knew about the fatal COVID-19 outbreak and when they knew it. Baker appointed Walsh to the job in 2016.

Baker said he first learned about the high number of deaths in one facility around 9 p.m. on March 29, and that he ordered the National Guard to Holyoke to help out, but Walsh told the Globe in a statement that he had kept the Department of Public Health, the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Health and Human Services regularly and frequently updated on the crisis.

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“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," Walsh said in the statement

Walsh was placed on paid administrative leave effective March 30, and Val Liptak, CEO of Western Massachusetts Hospital, was installed as administrator.

“A big part of the reason why, within sort of 48 hours of learning about it, the lieutenant governor and I and the secretary moved to hire an independent investigator was because we wanted answers,” Baker said at the Friday news conference. “By the time Val and the team showed up there, the place had real problems.”

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 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.

On Friday, officials said the death toll climbed by two veterans, bringing the total to 35, and 30 have been linked to the coronavirus. Another 76 veterans have tested positive, at least seven of whom were negative in the first round of testing. Seventy-three staff members also have been infected.

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One nursing assistant is on a ventilator in intensive care, according to union officials.

The federal officials said their inquiry is separate from the other two investigation, and falls under a federal law called the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act, known by the acronym, CRIPA. The law allows civil rights inquiries when there is concern that residents are facing a “pattern or practice of resistance to the full enjoyment of such rights” in state-run institutions.

Lelling said in a statement that the CRIPA investigation may end with the state being ordered to change its employment and purchasing practices in Holyoke.

“We will aggressively investigate recent events at the Home and, as needed, require the Commonwealth to adopt reforms to ensure patient safety in the future,” Lelling said. “My condolences to the families of those veterans who died while in the Home’s care; we will get to the bottom of what happened here.”

He also said that “it would be difficult to overstate our obligation to the health and well-being of elderly and disabled military veterans and, by extension, to their families.”

Eric Dreiband, the assistant attorney general who is in charge of the civil rights department said his agency felt an obligation to make sure veterans get the proper care they need.

“Our hearts go out to the families of the veterans who passed away,” said Dreiband. “We owe it to the veterans, their families, and the public to investigate the facts, determine what happened, ensure compliance with the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act, and protect those veterans who continue to reside at the Soldiers’ Home.”

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Globe correspondent Jeremy C. Fox contributed to this report.


John R. Ellement can be reached at john.ellement@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @JREbosglobe.