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Officials Investigating Multiple COVID-19 Deaths At Massachusetts Soldiers' Home

Flags and wreaths honor veterans on April 28, on the grounds of the Soldiers' Home in Holyoke, Mass., where a number of people died due to the coronavirus. While the death toll at the state-run Holyoke Soldiers' Home continues to climb, federal officials are investigating whether residents were denied proper medical care while the state's top prosecutor is deciding whether to bring legal action.
Flags and wreaths honor veterans on April 28, on the grounds of the Soldiers' Home in Holyoke, Mass., where a number of people died due to the coronavirus. While the death toll at the state-run Holyoke Soldiers' Home continues to climb, federal officials are investigating whether residents were denied proper medical care while the state's top prosecutor is deciding whether to bring legal action.

One of the deadliest outbreaks of the coronavirus has been at the Holyoke Soldiers' Home, a state-run nursing home for veterans in Western Massachusetts. At least 71 veterans have died from the virus, while another 80 veterans and 81 employees have tested positive.

Employees of the Soldiers' Home say the problem began in mid-March when a man on one of the memory care floors began exhibiting symptoms of the virus. Staff say they asked about infection control plans, but that management withheld personal protective equipment and made little effort to isolate the man from other residents.

As the virus continued to spread through the building, more residents and employees fell ill. Employees say by the end of March the Soldiers' Home was so short-staffed that management decided to combine two floors of memory care residents so that fewer workers were needed each shift.

Within days the onsite morgue was at capacity, and body bags began piling up in a refrigerated truck parked outside the building.

The true extent of the outbreak broke into public consciousness on March 30; up until that point, the Soldiers' Home had only announced one positive case of the virus.

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker called in the National Guard and put the Soldiers' Home superintendent, a retired marine named Bennett Walsh, on paid administrative leave.

Walsh did not respond to a request for comment, but said last month that he asked state officials for help and got no response. The state agency that oversees the Soldiers' Home won't say when it learned about the problem.

Many questions remain about what exactly happened — and whether management at the Soldiers' Home botched the response and then tried to cover it up — and the outbreak is currently the subject of four separate state and federal investigations.

Copyright 2020 WBUR. To see more, visit WBUR.