What did Baker administration officials know about the coronavirus crisis at the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke and when did they know it?
More than two months after that crisis erupted, there are still no straight answers from Governor Charlie Baker to those questions. Baker ordered an investigation into the matter on April 1, but the findings have yet to be released. According to a Baker administration spokesperson, the investigation, which is being overseen by Boston lawyer and former federal prosecutor Mark W. Pearlstein, is still being “worked on." In the meantime, at least 76 veterans who died at the Soldiers’ Home tested positive for COVID-19 — a grim toll that ranks as one of the worst at any long-term care facility in the country.
It’s important to note that the Governor and state officials were facing an unprecedented, rapidly unfolding crisis, a situation that challenged government officials around the country acting in the absence of sufficient White House support. But inconsistencies in reports about what state officials knew and how and when they responded make it important that more information is shared soon, at the very least to restore public trust.
Baker has repeatedly said that he and Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders — who is the cabinet secretary with overall responsibility for the facility — first learned of the COVID-19 outbreak on March 29. However, Bennett Walsh, the Baker-appointed superintendent of the Soldiers’ Home who has been placed on administrative leave, recently released documents that show that some state officials — including Secretary of Veterans’ Services Francisco Ureña — were told about the COVID-19 outbreak a week before Baker said he and Sudders learned of it. The documents released by Walsh, through his lawyer, do not exonerate him from any management decisions that may have contributed to the terrible outcome at the facility. But they do raise alarms about the apparent sluggishness of the Baker administration’s response to a health emergency.
Walsh said that he first learned a veteran had tested positive for COVID-19 on March 21. He said he notified Ureña that night, and the next day filed a critical incident report with the Department of Veterans’ Services and the Executive Office of Health and Human Services. He also notified the Department of Public Health and the Holyoke Board of Health. Walsh sent an updated report of additional COVID-19 cases on March 25 to Ureña and other Baker health and human services officials, including Daniel Tsai, assistant secretary for MassHealth, who reports to Sudders. The documents also show that Walsh requested national guard assistance on March 27. He received an e-mail from Human Services officials saying they knew “Holyoke needed as much help as it can get now." However, the National Guard was not dispatched until the following week, after Baker said he learned of the crisis at the Soldiers’ Home.
Could lives have been saved if state officials had responded more quickly to the communications from Walsh? It’s likely and that’s why the timeline is an important question, albeit only part of this story. According to Globe reporting, Sudders had been warned of long-festering staffing and management issues at the facility that no one in the Baker administration ever really addressed. The state attorney general and US attorney are also investigating the matter. But the Baker administration owes a full accounting to the families of those who died, and to the public. The sooner that happens, the better.
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