It has been 113 days since Governor Baker placed Bennett Walsh on paid administrative leave from his position as superintendent of the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, where one of the deadliest coronavirus outbreaks in the state took place. At least 76 residents of the facility would succumb to the virus, prompting nursing staff and family members to speak out about dire conditions that many likened to a war zone’s.
But in the lobby of a Springfield hotel Thursday, Walsh’s lawyer maintained that his client handled a complex situation appropriately and attacked the governor for creating a “toxic atmosphere” that, he said, led to an undue focus on the state-run home.
“I suggest to you they did a great job, under great pressure, with honor and dignity,” said William Bennett, Walsh’s uncle and attorney. “They should be applauded for the way they handled it.”
Walsh, who is fighting his termination, has not appeared before the press since April but has adamantly defended his management of the crisis through his lawyer.But an independent investigation by Mark W. Pearlstein, a former federal prosecutor appointed by Baker, concluded the home’s leaders made “utterly baffling” mistakes in responding to a devastating outbreak. The scathing findings were released in late June.
The most egregious mistake cited in the 174-page report — reported in April by the Globe — involved combining two dementia units that had both uninfected and infected residents. The decision meant 40 veterans were crowded into a space designed to hold 25, providing what the report called the “opposite of infection control.” A recreational therapist who was instructed to help with the move said she felt like she was “walking [the veterans] to their death,” the report said.
Bennett argued Thursday that the merger was “the best decision” that could have been made at the time and did not help spread the virus. He also took aim at Baker, who said he didn’t learn about the crisis until multiple veterans had died in late March and has been highly critical of Walsh since.
“It’s always Holyoke, Holyoke, Holyoke,” Bennett said, nodding to the Chelsea Soldiers’ Home, which reported 31 coronavirus-related deaths. “There is an unusual focus on Holyoke and on Mr. Walsh, and I think it gets back to that poison that was spread by the Baker administration against him.”
Bennett also criticized the Baker administration for denying his Walsh’s request for National Guard assistance and then three days later arriving with 160 people, placing Walsh on leave and installing a clinical response team to stabilize the facility.
In an effort to refute initial claims by the state that Walsh had failed to communicate in the first week of the outbreak in late March, his lawyer provided 34 pages of e-mails and text messages that show he was in regular communication with the Baker administration, particularly his supervisor and the secretary of veterans’ services, Fransico Urena.
But employees and family members present at the facility during that time have told the Globe those updates contained inaccuracies and did not convey the gravity of the situation at the home, where veterans were gasping for air and a refrigerated truck sat outside to accommodate the overflow of bodies.
“Bennett Walsh has been terminated and the independent report by former federal prosecutor Mark Pearlstein speaks for itself,” Health and Human Services spokeswoman Brooke Karanovich said in a statement on Bennett’s remarks.
Bennett said he disputed Walsh’s firing by the governor and the HHS secretary, Marylou Sudders, arguing the decision should have been left to the home’s Board of Trustees. Bennett has filed legal action seeking to prevent the board from meeting to discuss Walsh’s termination. A court hearing on the latter matter was scheduled for April 30, then rescheduled to July 30.
Walsh, who collected an annual salary of $123,752, remains one of the only administrators who oversaw the home during the crisis not to step down. Urena resigned, as did Dr. David Clinton, the home’s medical director; Vanessa Lauziere, its nursing director; and Celeste Surreira, its assistant nursing director.
Last week, the family of a late Korean War veteran filed a federal lawsuit against the five administrators, the first legal action by a family of a veteran who died during the Holyoke outbreak. Drawing heavily from the state-ordered investigation of the home, the complaint seeks $176 million and certification as a class-action civil rights lawsuit.