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After COVID-19 Deaths At Holyoke Veterans' Home, Sister Facility In Chelsea Reports Cases, 2 Deaths

A resident enters the Soldiers’ Home in Chelsea. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
A resident enters the Soldiers’ Home in Chelsea. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

At least two residents have died from COVID-19 at the Soldiers' Home in Chelsea, a state-run skilled nursing and residential care for older veterans, state health officials confirmed Wednesday. At least two employees have also tested positive for the virus, while one resident and two other employees are waiting on test results.

“While every life lost to COVID-19 is a tragedy, these veterans lived long, full lives, and their service to our community will never be forgotten," a spokesperson for the Chelsea Soldiers' Home said in the statement.

Those who have tested positive are being quarantined, and the facility is following all state and federal guidelines for cleaning and infection control, the spokesperson added.

Following a coronavirus outbreak at the Soldiers' Home in Holyoke, members of the National Guard load boxes of protective gear onto a cart outside the facility on March 31. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Following a coronavirus outbreak at the Soldiers' Home in Holyoke, members of the National Guard load boxes of protective gear onto a cart outside the facility on March 31. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

While the Chelsea facility is far from the first senior living center to experience positive cases of the coronavirus among residents and staff, the outbreak follows a tumultuous few days of disturbing news out of the home's sister facility in Holyoke, where the state saw its biggest eruption of deaths and cases so far in a single long-term nursing residence.

As of Wednesday afternoon, the Soldiers' Home in Holyoke has reported 15 resident deaths. Of those, six have tested positive for COVID-19; six have cases pending test results; two are negative and a final case is unknown. Additionally, 11 living residents and seven staff members have tested positive for COVID-19.

At a news conference Tuesday, Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders announced the superintendent of the Chelsea Soldiers' Home, Cheryl Poppe, was temporarily reassigned to help manage the Holyoke crisis. Poppe briefly served in the past as acting superintendent of the Holyoke facility, Sudders said. It's unclear when she will return to her normal position in Chelsea.

Chantal Polsonetti, whose 98-year-old father Philip Grace lives in the Chelsea Soldiers' Home, told WBUR that the news is worrisome but that she trusts the staff and management to handle the outbreak.

"Of course we're very concerned about him. It's a very vulnerable population in there," she said. "[But] my experience there is that they have a wonderful, warm, caring staff ... I just feel that they will do their best."

Polsonetti was quick to draw a distinction between how the outbreak in Holyoke may have been handled and the care she has observed at the Chelsea facility.

"From what I've read, it appears that perhaps, administratively, in Holyoke there wasn't as much vigilance or honesty," she said. "And, in my experience with the communications [from Chelsea] they always seem to be doing the best that they can for the folks that they have there."

Gov. Charlie Baker announced Wednesday he had hired an attorney to oversee an independent investigation of the deaths in Holyoke. The move followed claims by Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse and others that the veterans' home there did not properly notify city or state officials about the outbreak.

Later Wednesday, Baker told reporters in Worcester that while an investigation is needed to "get to the bottom of what took place" in Holyoke, he felt that officials at the Chelsea veterans home followed appropriate protocols when residents became ill.

A 2016 audit by the state auditor found glaring and ongoing problems at the Chelsea Soldiers’ Home, including a failure in the past to provide residents with safe and sanitary living conditions.

“The facilities contained scattered trash and debris, overloaded electrical outlets, loose and cracked plaster, and evidence of pests and human waste,” the audit stated.

The audit also said equipment and supplies were not properly maintained or kept sanitary.

“These problems, if left unattended, could have a negative effect on the health and safety of residents,” the audit added.

After the audit, Soldiers’ Home Chelsea reported it fixed issues with sanitation and implemented new procedures to ensure equipment was inspected and repaired.

Asked about problems with cleanliness and hygiene at the facility in the past, Polsonetti said she's aware of the reports but never witnessed a problem during the time her father has been there.

Soldiers’ Home in Chelsea is one of the oldest in the country, established in 1882.

This story is developing and will be updated. With additional reporting from WBUR's Christine Willmsen

This article was originally published on April 01, 2020.

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