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'It Didn't Have To Get That Bad': Veteran Service Officer Says Problems At Holyoke Soldiers' Home Go Way Back06:43
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Members of the National Guard load boxes of protective gear onto a cart at the Soldiers’ Home — a state-run long-term residence and health facility in Holyoke where 11 veterans have died following a coronavirus outbreak — on March 31. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Members of the National Guard load boxes of protective gear onto a cart at the Soldiers’ Home — a state-run long-term residence and health facility in Holyoke where 11 veterans have died following a coronavirus outbreak — on March 31. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Veterans' advocates are raising concern about the care vets are receiving at the Soldiers' Home in Holyoke. The nursing facility is run by the state Department of Veterans' Services. Thirteen veterans have died at the facility in recent days. Six are confirmed to have had COVID-19. One tested negative for the coronavirus, and the other results are pending. So far, 10 additional residents and seven staffers have tested positive.

Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse says people connected to the soldiers' home contacted him Saturday. They told him there were "growing issues" at the facility. He asked Holyoke's health department to look into it. They got no response, Morse says, so he contacted the home's superintendent.

"The superintendent let me know there had been eight veteran deaths between Wednesday and Sunday without any public notification, without any notification to my office, and also just no notification to the state government that oversees this facility in the first place," Morse said in a Monday news conference.

Morse says he didn't feel a sense of urgency in that call.

The state's Executive Office of Health and Human Services tells WBUR the proper state and local officials were notified of the deaths.

Governor Baker says he only found out about the veterans' deaths Sunday. Since then, a team of medical, epidemiological, and operational experts have convened at the Soldiers' Home in Holyoke. The National Guard is there to help test residents for the coronavirus.

The director of Central Hampshire Veterans Services, Steve Connor, says he's had longstanding concerns about conditions at the home. He wrote a report in 2017 to alert state lawmakers about patient care and staffing levels, and he's concerned the problems persisted.

Interview Transcript

Part of me feels like it didn't have to get that bad. And, you know, I know that that's happening all around the country — people are looking at different facilities where these [deaths from COVID-19] are happening. I feel like — and other [veteran service officers] that I'm here with in western Mass.  — we were all talking about it all weekend. We assist families to get their loved ones enrolled and admitted into the soldiers' home. And so, we feel, like, a real responsibility, or a real connection, with the people that go in there. And to then find out that the care isn't as — what we would hope it to be, that weighs on us, because we're that connection between the family and the soldiers' home.

Lisa Mullins: And when you say the care isn't what it should be, what's your understanding of the lapses right now that you think played into this situation?

From all indications, there have been staff who have not been able to work, or may have been infected and keep coming back into work because there's a shortage. And it's a shortage that I think has existed for a while. I haven't done any research recently about it, but from a couple of years ago, there was a lot of positions that weren't filled ... But there was a large posting of opportunities to get employment there in the last week or so. And I don't know if ... it was just to get replacements or just get some quick help, but the concern was that things were happening. And when we'd get a call — and when I say we, I mean the other cities' and town veteran service officers would get a call by a family member — we wouldn't know what to say, because we didn't have any answers.

So what are you asking the soldiers home officials, and what are they telling you and not able to tell you?

What was first asked was, we had heard rumors that there were serious health issues and that there was many more cases than the one case that was reported. And some of my other peers had made inquiries, and they weren't getting answers.

So what did you ask and what answers were you given?

We wanted to know, were there more deaths than had been reported. And one of my peers found out that, yes, there were a few. But just like the mayor had said, it didn't sound like there was a sense of urgency when we made that request and got word back ... this past Sunday.

And do you know why those [veterans] who were diagnosed [with COVID-19] were not taken to a hospital facility?

I do not know ... Many of them are eligible to go to a [Veterans Affairs] hospital. And the VA does have some oversight on soldiers' homes across the country.

And do you know if there are proper precautions being taken? Is there anything that you can tell us about the layout of the [soldiers' home], the availability of personal protective equipment that would have made the veterans — and even the staff now — especially vulnerable?

The word that we received from people who worked inside was that there wasn't enough and that people were not wanting to come into work because they were afraid they were getting exposed. And they didn't want to go home to their families having been exposed to it. So that was one of the biggest things folks were complaining about on Saturday, was that there wasn't enough PPE. And then Sunday was when we got messages that people had died.

What kind of accountability is there for what goes on at the Holyoke Soldiers' Home?

The governing system is there is a superintendent and an assistant superintendent. And I I realize they let go the current [superintendent], or put him on administrative leave. I've seen these problems happen before he ever got hired. There was budget restrictions, hiring freezes, asking people to work overtime more than they should because there wasn't enough staff. And now with this, and people being fearful of getting infected, it sounds like it got even worse.

Obviously, there's a lot that you were still trying to find out. What can you say to the families of these veterans who are supposed to be taken care of?

All indications are that currently over there, there's an entire crew who has come in. People are being tested. Employees are being tested. So for the future right now, I would say things are looking up because there is so much focus happening right now. The concern that we have is, going forward, how are we going to address what happened and how to prevent it from happening again.

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Lisa Mullins Twitter Host, All Things Considered
Lisa Mullins is the voice of WBUR’s All Things Considered. She anchors the program, conducts interviews and reports from the field.

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Lynn Jolicoeur is the field producer for WBUR's All Things Considered. She also reports for the station's various local news broadcasts.

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