In late March, when the first resident of the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke died from the coronavirus, 226 residents lived at the elder care facility. Just over a month later, nearly 30 percent of them have died in one of the nation’s deadliest outbreaks, and another 83 have tested positive.
With 67 deaths linked to the coronavirus, the facility has a greater reported death toll than any other nursing home in New England, New York or New Jersey, or the long-term care facility in Kirkland, Wash., the initial epicenter of the US outbreak, according to a Globe review of cases.
Almost every day brings a new death.
As several investigations into the state-run facility’s handling of the crisis move forward, employees and their union representatives say the situation has stabilized, in large part because the facility is now half-empty. Forty-three residents have been hospitalized, and 10 others have died from other causes. As of Monday, just 106 residents remained, according to Brooke Karanovich, a spokeswoman for Health and Human Services.
“We’ve mostly contained the crisis, but we have such a small number so that’s almost expected,” said Joan Miller, who has worked as a nurse at the facility for five years. When the outbreak began, her husband moved out of their Springfield home as she continued to work at the facility. They haven’t been able to hug in over a month for fear of transmission. She tested negative in early April, but has not been re-tested since. In all, 81 caregivers have tested positive, said Karanovich.
Nursing homes across the country have been devastated by the contagion, but the Holyoke facility was particularly vulnerable. Before the outbreak, roughly one-third of residents were 90 or older and needed substantial round-the-clock care.
Despite the obvious risks, a series of lapses allowed the virus to spread nearly unchecked through the facility, employees have said. In the days before the first death, managers at the chronically short-staffed home placed veterans who tested positive for COVID-19 in close proximity with uninfected veterans, according to workers. Employees floated between units without proper personal protective equipment, the Globe has reported.
How this was allowed to happen, and when state officials were made aware, remains unclear.
Governor Charlie Baker said that he did not know about the outbreak until March 29, by which point several veterans had died from the disease and scores more had been infected. Baker has said that he was “appalled” by the lack of reporting from the facility and that his office moved 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, disputes the governor’s account. He said he provided daily updates to state officials, including his direct supervisor, Department of Veterans Services Secretary Francisco Urena, after the first veteran tested positive and he requested additional staff support as the virus spread. Urena has declined to comment on the outbreak.
The crisis has prompted four separate investigations by Baker, Attorney General Maura Healey, the federal Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, and State Inspector General Glenn Cuhna. The latter is a continuation of an unrelated investigation launched by the state watchdog at the end of January and expanded to include the circumstances leading to the coronavirus crisis. It is unclear what initially prompted the initial investigation.
In early April, 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 staffers.
The veterans have died at an average rate of almost three per day since April 6, when the state started consistently reporting the deaths and infections. Most were 80 or older with underlying conditions that increased their vulnerability to the disease.
Within these numbers are stories of men who enlisted in the military when they were teenage boys. Take Joseph Johns, whose indigenous name was Cayoni Wahali and who was recruited into the Navy in 1944 at the age of 15 from his home on Native American lands in the Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia. Or Chuck Lowell, who jumped from classrooms of Hardwick High School to the tarmacs of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. Or Emilio DiPalma, who stood as a courtroom guard at the Nuremberg Trials at just 19 years old. These three men, as well as dozens of others, died in April without family by their side or the decorated farewell typically afforded to the nation’s veterans.
The men made up a vibrant community at the Soldiers’ Home where veterans exchanged stories, hosted a hulking therapy English mastiff named Mac, and played cards in the canteen while overlooking the city of Holyoke. Their visitors grew to know and love the other veterans on their floors.
Today, that canteen sits empty and visitors, still reeling from the loss of their own loved ones, wonder what has become of the characters they got to know through bingo games and lunches.
“We can’t get any information because we’re not family. But for some of these men, we had become their family. And now you don’t know where or how they are,” said Susan Kenney, the daughter of Lowell. Often, those questions are answered by a death notice. In other cases, the Holyoke residents have been hospitalized or remain at the Soldiers’ Home, where their status can be shared only with an authorized health care proxy.
Questions remain as to how the facility will rebound from the ongoing catastrophe. The decrease in patients and the presence of the National Guard have taken the spotlight off of the staffing shortages and mismanagement that has plagued the facility for years. But the concerns still linger.
“I’ve likened it to what I imagine a corporate takeover to be like. Normally, you’re scared of the new administration, but now we’re scared they will give us back the old one. There’s just no confidence,” said Miller, the nurse.
Despite the tumult of the last month, a waitlist remains for the facility, according to Andrea Fox of Massachusetts Nursing Association, which represents 40 nurses at the facility.
“Some of this had to do with leadership but much of it had to do with the preexisting conditions. It’s unclear what the full long-range plan is,” said Fox, who has sat in on management meetings. “In the end, what is going to be left when they all go home and what are the lessons to be learned from this?”