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Emails show state officials knew of Holyoke Soldiers’ Home outbreak before deaths began

Former Hampden District Attorney William Bennett, representing Bennett Walsh, discussed the coronavirus outbreak at the Soldiers' Home in Holyoke during a news conference on Tuesday.
Former Hampden District Attorney William Bennett, representing Bennett Walsh, discussed the coronavirus outbreak at the Soldiers' Home in Holyoke during a news conference on Tuesday.Leon Nguyen/Associated Press

The lawyer for Bennett Walsh, the suspended superintendent of the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, where 76 residents have died in the state’s largest coronavirus cluster, released documents Tuesday that appear to show he provided state officials daily updates as the outbreak spread in late March, contradicting the account of Governor Charlie Baker’s administration.

William Bennett spoke on Walsh’s behalf two months after the first coronavirus death at the state-run facility and released e-mails that bolstered Walsh’s previous claim that state and local officials were given frequent updates about the severity of the outbreak and the need for outside help.

Those officials have said they were kept in the dark as infections raced through the facility and the death toll climbed.

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“Because they have remained silent, I want to set the record straight,” Bennett said at a news conference in Springfield, which Walsh did not attend. Bennett is Walsh’s uncle.

According to the e-mails, Walsh regularly communicated with his direct supervisor, Secretary Francisco Urena of the Department of Veterans’ Services, after the first veteran tested positive on March 21. They show that Walsh later requested help from the state’s executive Office of Health and Human Services as more cases emerged and an employee tested positive for coronavirus.

State and federal authorities are investigating how the nursing home handled the initial outbreak and whether officials followed proper procedures. The Baker administration declined to comment on the e-mails and Walsh’s allegations, citing an independent investigation ordered by Baker on April 1.

“The tragic situation at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home is a reminder of the insidious nature of COVID-19, a virus that is having a devastating impact in our communities and long term care facilities,” Health and Human Services spokeswoman Brooke Karanovich said in a statement.

Mayor Alex Morse of Holyoke said it wasn’t until March 28 that he was alerted to the severity of the outbreak by an anonymous tipster who reported the deaths of seven veterans amid quarantine breaches.

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Baker said he did not learn about the outbreak until 9 p.m. the next day and was “appalled” by the lack of reporting from the facility. He said his office quickly deployed the National Guard after learning of the situation. He placed Walsh on paid administrative leave, appointed Val Liptak, chief executive of Western Massachusetts Hospital, as interim superintendent, and deployed a National Guard contingent to expedite coronavirus testing and relieve overburdened nurses.

The Department of Veterans’ Services falls under the supervision of the office of Health and Human Services, one of eight offices that report directly to the governor.

The e-mails show that Walsh filed a critical incident report with both agencies on March 22, the day after the first veteran tested positive, and communicated with Urena throughout the week by text and e-mail. He also noted in the initial report that five other veterans were symptomatic.

Over the next two days, additional veterans exhibited symptoms and were tested, but Walsh contends that state officials were only requesting reports on confirmed cases at that time.

By March 27, with seven confirmed cases and dozens of tests pending, Walsh requested additional help from the National Guard, according to the e-mails his lawyer provided.

“I understand that Holyoke needs as much help as it can get right now. We have asked how to request assistance from the National Guard,” Suzanne Quersher, the director of labor relations at Health and Human Services, wrote in response to Walsh’s plea for more staff.

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Walsh then wrote Urena to request help from the National Guard.

“We are exploring all options at this time,” Urena replied.

At the end of the day, Walsh reported that nine people had tested positive for COVID-19, one of whom died that day. The responses from state officials, according to the e-mails, reflect a focus on reporting only confirmed cases, even as veterans were dying before their test results came back.

“Our due date for these reports is 3pm and given the fluidity of the situation and your pending tests, I imagine you may get more by 3, so I will wait on adding your info until we get closer," wrote Colleen Arons, an administrator with Health and Human Services when she was alerted to a 12th positive test on March 28. “In general, you might want to consider holding on sending your report to me until closer to 3 each day."

That same day, a reporter with WWLP News inquired about a tip that a veteran had died in an outbreak at the Soldiers’ Home and that sick and healthy veterans were being housed together. Anthony Preston, director of legislative and media Relations at Veterans’ Services, told Walsh not to respond, according to an e-mail Bennett provided.

“I am working on a response now,” wrote Preston.

The scope of the outbreak was made public the following day after eight veterans had died. Baker placed Walsh on administrative leave later that evening, claiming he had just learned about the outbreak.

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When asked whether the Soldiers’ Home also communicated transparently with veterans’ family members and staffers, Bennett said it did. He said he did not bring documents to support that claim because it wasn’t the basis of the news conference.

Family members told The Boston Globe they did not learn about the mounting infections and deaths until news reports surfaced on March 30. Internal e-mails obtained by the Globe show sporadic and inconsistent messaging that did not provide daily updates on case numbers.

State Attorney General Maura Healey, the federal Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, and the State Inspector General are also investigating the facility’s handling of the outbreak.

Union leaders and workers have said poor management in the early days of the outbreak exacerbated its spread. Instead of isolating the first symptomatic resident, managers said they were short-staffed and combined his unit with another. Managers also ordered caregivers to move between the infected unit and others without adequate protective gear, and threatened to discipline workers or dock their pay if they called in sick, the employees said.

Many people suspect Walsh was chosen as superintendent in 2016, at least in part, because of his deep political ties in nearby Springfield. Walsh, who also served as executive officer at the Marine Corps recruitment and training facility at Parris Island, S.C., did not have any nursing home or medical expertise.

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Employees and supervisors at Holyoke told the Globe that Walsh was a hands-off leader who seemed out of touch with the job’s demands. Meanwhile, the families of Soldiers’ Home veterans, health workers, and former supervisors say repeated warnings about staffing at the home have been brushed aside during Walsh’s tenure and before he arrived.

Walsh remains on paid administrative leave. His salary is $123,752, state records show. In early April, the home’s trustees presumed plans to fire Walsh were halted when he filed a complaint for injunctive relief, arguing it would be impossible for him to receive a fair hearing. That hearing has been delayed until July.

Read the e-mails:


Hanna Krueger can be reached at hanna.krueger@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @hannaskrueger.