Mass. secretary of Veterans’ Services resigns over Soldiers’ Home outbreak

Soldier's Home in Holyoke.

The leadership of a home for aging veterans in Massachusetts where nearly 80 residents sickened with the coronavirus have died made “substantial errors and failures” as the disease began to spread, likely contributing to the high death toll, according to an independent investigation released Wednesday.

The superintendent of the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home was not qualified to manage a long-term care facility and he and his leadership team made decisions that were “utterly baffling from an infection-control perspective,” the report said. Among them was a decision to move veterans from one dementia unit into another, both of which housed veterans who already had the virus.

“Rather than isolating those with the disease from those who were asymptomatic — a basic tenet of infection control — the consolidation of these two units resulted in more than 40 veterans crowded into a space designed to hold 25. This overcrowding was the opposite of infection control; instead, it put those who were asymptomatic at even greater risk of contracting COVID-19,” the report said.

The investigation was conducted by former federal prosecutor Mark Pearlstein, who was hired by Republican Gov. Charlie Baker.

“This report lays out in heartbreaking detail the terrible failures that unfolded at the facility, and the tragic outcomes that followed,” Baker said in an emailed statement. “Our emergency response to the COVID-19 outbreak stabilized conditions for residents and staff, and we now have an accurate picture of what went wrong and will take immediate action to deliver the level of care that our veterans deserve.”

The home’s superintendent, Bennett Walsh, has defended his response and accused state officials of falsely claiming they were not notified quickly enough about the spread of the virus. He was placed on administrative leave March 30 and the CEO of Western Massachusetts Hospital, Val Liptak, took over operations.

An email seeking comment was sent to Walsh’s attorney Wednesday.

Massachusetts’ Secretary of Veterans Services Francisco Urena told reporters late Tuesday he was asked to resign ahead of the release of the report. Urena did not immediately respond to a message sent Wednesday by The Associated Press.

“I’m very sorry,” Urena told WCVB-TV. “I tried my best.”

Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey is also investigating to determine if legal action is warranted, she said. And the U.S. attorney’s office in Massachusetts and Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division are looking into whether the home violated residents’ rights by failing to provide them proper medical care.

Workers said they were not given adequate personal protective gear at the beginning of the outbreak and management did not properly isolate the first veteran to test positive for COVID-19. Staffing shortages that employees have been complaining about for years helped the virus spread quickly as nurses were forced to move from unit to unit to help out, they said.

Categories: Coronavirus, Massachusetts, News