Eleven veteran residents have died during a coronavirus outbreak at Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke, state health officials confirmed in an email Monday. Eleven other residents and five employees have confirmed cases of the coronavirus, and 25 additional residents are waiting for test results.
Of the 11 dead, five tested positive for COVID-19; five cases have results pending; and one case is unknown. It's unclear if the Soldiers' Home deaths were counted in the latest coronavirus case numbers released by the state Monday. Health officials last reported deaths due to COVID-19 in Hampden County on March 28.
Until Monday, Soldiers’ Home had previously confirmed just one case of COVID-19 to WBUR.
In its statement about the deaths, the Executive Office of Health and Human Services also announced Bennett Walsh, superintendent of Soldiers' Home, was placed on administrative leave. His duties will be taken over by Val Liptak, current CEO of Western Massachusetts Hospital.
In response to the outbreak, a team of people — including state medical, epidemiological, operational and logistical experts — has convened at the state-run veterans nursing facility that can house about 250. The National Guard was also brought in to help test residents.
"It has been devastating to hear about the full extent of the COVID-19 outbreak at the Soldiers’ Home,” Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse said in a statement. “While I am grateful that the state is now taking swift action to ensure residents and staff get necessary care and treatment, I am grief-stricken for those we have already lost, and my heart goes out to their families and friends.”
The mayor said staff from Soldiers' Home had reached out to his office on Saturday about "growing issues" at the facility, so he asked the city's board of health to look into it. Hearing nothing, Morse said he called Superintendent Bennett Walsh directly on Sunday to discuss the reports.
"That's when I first heard about the extent of the spread of the virus at the Soldiers' Home," Morse says. "I could not believe that that hadn't been made public to the community, to my office, to the board of health."
Morse said Walsh told him that a patient in the memory care ward had contracted the virus, and that it had spread from there.
"My takeaway from that conversation was that they hadn't taken the adequate precautions," Morse said. "And to be honest, there was little sense of urgency on that call. We were told by the secretary, 'Well, all of these folks had underlying health conditions.' And that answer just wasn't good enough, so I got off that call and I reached out to the lieutenant governor [Karyn Polito]. She got back to me right away and said, 'We're on it.' "
Morse said that half an hour later, Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders called him to discuss the plan moving forward. HHS will now provide regular updates about the number of cases at the Soldiers’ Home and the response effort, he added.
Veterans in the care of Soldiers' Home receive everything from long-term nursing services, to occupational and respiratory services, to palliative and hospice care. The facility also operates outpatient services.
This article was originally published on March 30, 2020.
This segment aired on March 31, 2020.