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OPINION

Reimagining the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home

Our veterans are counting on us to get it right.

The front lawn at the Holyoke Soldiers' Home in June where at least 76 elderly veterans died of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic.
The front lawn at the Holyoke Soldiers' Home in June where at least 76 elderly veterans died of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic.Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff

The deaths of 76 veterans from COVID-19 at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home and the infections of many more, as well as 80 staff members, was the result of catastrophic failures on many fronts, especially poor management.

Our coalition of veterans and family members associated with the home came together in the aftermath of this tragedy because we believe improvements must be made, including the renovation of the 250-bed home.

The Baker administration has revived a 2012 renovation plan that was approved for federal funding. We agree with the state’s plan to bring the home up to 2020 standards and resubmit it to the US Department of Veterans Affairs to meet an April 2021 deadline for a 65 percent federal funding formula. The state would pay the remaining 35 percent.

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These are the right steps to avoid any similar catastrophes in the long term. But we still have concerns for the immediate future. Family members, already traumatized by the events of earlier this year, want more information, and they deserve answers.

We want to know what the state’s infection control plan will be to meet the expected second wave of COVID-19 this fall and winter, including specifics about providing adequate supplies of personal protective equipment.

We also want to have a voice in decisions for improving the home. The reimagined Soldiers’ Home should include enough accommodations to meet the crushing demand in our state for veterans needing long-term care — enough for 250 veterans, each with a private room and private bath. We also want to see an adult day health care program with social activities, peer support, companionship, and recreation.

We are concerned that the state will look to downsize the home, at a time when the demand for long-term care is as significant as ever. The demand for skilled nursing is only expected to grow as more and more veterans seek care.

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We also want to make sure the state is not constrained by past models. This means helping veterans with substance use disorders, post-traumatic stress, military sexual trauma, loss of limbs, traumatic brain injuries, and more.

Any future home must include the right staffing and mix of specialty areas to take care of the unique needs of the elder veteran population. This means a full-time geriatrician, geriatric psychiatry, women’s health, increased recreational programs with outdoor therapy programs, and the best in infection control, including state-of-the-art ultraviolet disinfection systems.

The Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke has many urgent needs: better funding and staffing, better governance and oversight, an adult day health care program, and, not least, the construction of a new and upgraded home.

The new Soldiers’ Home will need to serve veterans for 70 to 100 years or more. This is a chance to get it right for future generations of veterans.

COVID-19 has been catastrophic and, as the military has done during times of war, it is time for the governor, the Legislature, and the public to mobilize and see to it that our veterans receive the best care, delivered in an atmosphere of compassion, honor, and dignity. Our veterans are depending on us.

The Holyoke Soldiers’ Home Coalition is a grass-roots organization of family members of veterans who died of COVID-19 while at the home, family members of current residents, leaders in the veterans community, and former members of the executive leadership team of the home.

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