Six employees at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home retested positive for COVID-19 this week, prompting the state-run facility, which cares for aged and infirm veterans, to close its doors to visitors, possibly until Aug. 11, officials said.
The six employees were not showing COVID-19 symptoms but “were immediately sent home out of an abundance of caution,” said Brooke Karanovich, spokeswoman for the Executive Office of Health and Human Services.
The workers had tested positive or shown COVID-19 symptoms months before the latest test, state officials said. They all had been considered clinically recovered, according to federal guidance on the virus.
The latest testing for staff and residents at the home — two rounds are planned — was prompted by a resident’s positive reading this week. As with the six employees, the resident had previously tested positive but was considered clinically recovered. The resident was transferred to a hospital, where a subsequent test came back negative Wednesday.
However, a union official on Thursday differed with what state officials described as a “full house” test of all staff and residents at the home. Cory Bombredi, an organizer for the union that represents most of the home’s employees, said about 50 staff members refused to be tested this week.
Bombredi said he is unsure of the reason, but that some members of the Service Employees International local have complained about the “invasive nature” of the test.
In any event, the reemergence of positive tests at the home “worries us,” Bombredi said.
The Soldiers’ Home, where at least 76 elderly residents have died of the virus and dozens more fell ill, had not recorded a positive COVID-19 test in weeks.
The home is under interim leadership as it struggles to recover from the devastating outbreak. A state report released last month said that former leaders at the home had made “utterly baffling” mistakes, including failing to plan or execute basic measures to stem the spread of the virus.
The report outlined a litany of government and leadership failures at the home, where about 250 veterans either live or seek care, and found that these lingering and unaddressed management issues came to a head during the pandemic.
“Even the best preparations and most careful response cannot eliminate the threat of COVID-19,” the report said. “But this does not excuse a failure to plan and execute on longstanding infection control principles and to seek outside help when it is required to keep patients safe."
In the most glaring failure, according to the report, management merged two locked dementia units on March 27, a decision investigators described as a catastrophe. The review described the conditions in the combined unit as “deplorable.”
Forty veterans were crowded into a space designed to hold 25, providing what the report called the “opposite of infection control.”
The home’s superintendent, Bennett Walsh, was placed on leave in March and is contesting his dismissal. Francisco Urena, the state secretary of veterans’ services who oversaw Walsh, resigned last month.
After the resident’s positive test, “immediate action was taken including isolating roommates and units, increasing deep cleaning, and increasing PPE usage across the home,” according to an e-mail that Val Liptak, the home’s interim administrator, sent to the staff Wednesday evening.
“The results for the full-house resident testing are coming in,” Liptak added in the e-mail provided to the Globe. “The only resident that tested positive is the veteran resident . . . who was clinically recovered, tested positive, and subsequently tested negative.”
More than 80 residents at the home have been determined to be clinically recovered and are living in a designated unit, Liptak wrote.
The administrator added that she expected family visits to resume Aug. 11, but that they would be allowed “sooner if test results allow.”
“We know this will be difficult for our veterans, and we are encouraging families to schedule video visits during this time,” she said.
COVID reinfection is a subject of debate among scientists. Medical experts told the Globe this week that it is possible, but uncommon, for people to get infected with the coronavirus more than once.
Reinfection is “not the rule, it’s the exception,” said Dr. Michael Mina, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health.
Liptak wrote in the e-mail that “medical research does not know how long the virus may remain in a person’s body, but it is widely agreed that once a person is determined clinically recovered they are not believed to be contagious.”
“All of the residents who are considered clinically recovered were not showing symptoms for at least 20 days,” she said.
Before the latest positive results at the Soldiers’ Home, state officials reported that all residents had recovered by June 18. And in near-daily updates, the last of which was sent Friday, zero positive cases were reported at either the facility or Holyoke Medical Center, where about two dozens veterans have been staying at a dedicated skilled nursing unit.
Hanna Krueger of the Globe staff contributed to this report.
Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.