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Secretary of Veterans’ Services Francisco Urena resigns ahead of Holyoke Soldiers’ Home report

Francisco Urena.
Francisco Urena.Jessica Rinaldi

Massachusetts Secretary of Veterans’ Services Francisco Urena abruptly resigned from his post Tuesday, before the release of the results of an investigation into the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke, where at least 76 veterans with the coronavirus have died, Urena confirmed early Wednesday.

“I was asked to resign and I did, in anticipation of the Pearlstein report which comes out tomorrow,” Urena said in a direct message to a reporter on Twitter. “As for comment, I am awaiting to read the report once released.”

Former federal prosecutor Mark W. Pearlstein was hired by Governor Charlie Baker’s administration in April to investigate the COVID-19 outbreak at the home.

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Report slams handling of coronavirus at Holyoke Soldiers’ Home
An independent report found the leadership team at the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke to have made “substantial errors” in responding to the COVID-19 outbreak. (Photo: Angela Rowlings/Pool, Video: Handout)

Bennett Walsh, the Baker-appointed superintendent of the Soldiers’ Home who has been placed on administrative leave, released documents last month that appear to show he provided state officials daily updates as the outbreak spread in late March, contradicting the Baker administration’s account.

According to the e-mails, Walsh regularly communicated with Urena, who was Walsh’s direct supervisor, after the first veteran tested positive on March 21.

The e-mails 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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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But according to the e-mails, Walsh apparently requested additional help from the National Guard on March 27 as the facility saw seven confirmed cases and dozens of tests pending. By the end of the day, Walsh reported that nine people had tested positive for COVID-19, one of whom died that day.

An aerial view of Soldier's Home in Holyoke.
An aerial view of Soldier's Home in Holyoke. Blake Nissen for the Boston Globe

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.”

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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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.

The outbreak at the facility has claimed the lives of 76 veterans. Seventy percent of the 226 residents tested positive. One out of three of the 226 has died from the virus.

Urena, a former Marine, was director of veterans’ services for Lawrence and then Boston before Baker appointed him state secretary of veterans’ services in 2015.

The Baker administration has declined to comment on the e-mails and Walsh’s allegations, citing the independent investigation.

Previous Globe coverage was used in this report.


Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.