Holyoke Mayor: For Half A Week, Soldiers' Home Deaths Were Not Reported To State Or City Officials

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A cleaning crew is suited up with protective gear to enter the Soldiers' Home in Holyoke. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
A cleaning crew is suited up with protective gear to enter the Soldiers' Home in Holyoke. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

A day after health officials announced 11 deaths in a coronavirus outbreak at a state-run veterans home, Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse said Soldiers' Home staff did not notify city or state officials last week after residents had died.

Two other veterans have since died, bringing the total to 13 resident deaths at the facility as of Tuesday afternoon, according to the state Executive Office of Health and Human Services. Of those, six tested positive for COVID-19; five cases have test results pending; one is negative and a final case is unknown.

Meanwhile, 10 living residents and seven staff members have tested positive for COVID-19, and 25 additional residents are waiting for test results.

"On Sunday I directly reached out to the superintendent of the facility, Bennett Walsh," Morse said. "I was shocked on the phone call when the superintendent had let me know that there had been eight veteran deaths between Wednesday and Sunday without any public notification, without any notification to my office, and also no notification to the state government, which oversees this facility in the first place."

However, the state's Executive Office of Health and Human Services said in a statement given to WBUR on Monday night that the proper state and local officials were notified of the deaths.

Morse said he first learned Friday that a single case at the facility "had turned into several cases," and explained during a Facebook Live press conference that he received an anonymous tip from "folks affiliated with the Soldiers’ Home describing the conditions and the gravity of the situation."

The mayor said he directed the city board of health to contact the facility, and after getting no response, decided to call Soldiers' Home directly.

Across the state, others reacted to the news of the deaths.

"This episode is a gut-wrenching loss that is nothing short of devastating to all of us," Gov. Charlie Baker said Tuesday. "Our hearts go out to the families, and the loved ones and the staff who have been so horribly impacted by this series of events."

The Republican governor appeared emotional as he spoke about the deaths, which he said he learned of Sunday night.

He spoke about the Soldiers' Home incident before ordering that a number of statewide bans be extended until May 4. Among them was the shutdown of all non-essential businesses, bans on gatherings of 10 or more people and the administration's "stay-at-home" advisory — all measures aimed at keeping people physically apart to slow the spread of the virus.

Asked if a breakdown in communication occurred, Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders said at the press conference: "There's a critical incident health and reporting chain of command" at the Soldiers' Home, and "it was not followed."

Baker reiterated that his "primary focus is stabilizing and supporting the health safety of residents and families," but that "we will get to the bottom of what happened and when and by who."

The governor added that all veterans and employees at the roughly 250-bed facility are being tested for the coronavirus.

This story is developing and will be updated.

This article was originally published on March 31, 2020.


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Miriam Wasser Senior Reporter, Climate and Environment
Miriam Wasser is a reporter with WBUR's climate and environment team.



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