The top federal prosecutor in Massachusetts, Andrew Lelling, announced Friday that his office and the U.S. Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division are opening an investigation into the coronavirus outbreak at the Soldiers' Home in Holyoke.
At issue is whether the state-run facility violated the federal Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (CRIPA) by failing to provide residents with adequate medical care as the coronavirus spread among veterans and staff.
"The point of the statute is to allow us to investigate whether the institution has done something that jeopardizes the minimum safety requirements," Lelling says. "In this context, it's very specific to the pandemic. Did they violate minimally acceptable standards for preventative measures? And does it amount to a pattern at that institution?"
If the answers to those questions are yes, he says, "then we can essentially force the state to reform the practices that are followed in that institution."
Examples of potential reforms include new patient-staff ratios, equipment requirements and training or reporting obligations, though the specific reforms will depend on the findings of the investigation, he says.
"If the state has been entrusted with the care of a person ... then the state has to provide sufficient care to keep those people healthy. That's basically what it comes down to," he says. And if the state fails to protect those in its care — whether negligently, recklessly or intentionally — then the state can be held responsible.
Investigators will also look into whether management covered up the extent of the problem and failed to report deaths in a timely way.
News of the deadly outbreak came into the public consciousness on Monday, March 30. The state called in the National Guard to help coordinate the response and test residents, and the facility's Superintendent was put on administrative leave.
Employees who spoke to WBUR last week said that leadership at the Soldiers' Home "botched" the response and made poor decisions that accelerated the spread of the virus--combining two floors of the facility because of staffing issues, for instance.
To date, the state says that 28 veteran residents have died from COVID-19. Another 69 residents and 68 employees have tested positive.
Gov. Charlie Baker and Attorney General Maura Healey have also launched investigations into the outbreak at the Soldiers' Home, and Lelling says his intention is to coordinate and collaborate with them so that the work can get done in less than a year.
"We do a lot of CRIPA investigations," Lelling says, "but [this one] being about a veterans home definitely added momentum to this. It seems to us that there is an acute federal interest in protecting the well-being of elderly and disabled veterans."