The department’s civil rights division announced on Friday that they have opened an investigation into the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke, a state-funded facility about 90 miles from Boston, to see whether the facility had failed to provide adequate medical care generally and during the CCP virus pandemic. The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Massachusetts will also be involved in the probe.
The soldier’s home is already facing two other investigations from the state’s governor Charlie Baker, who appointed an independent attorney to probe the events leading up to deaths, and the state’s attorney general, Maura Healey, who is determining what “went wrong at this facility and determine if legal action is warranted.”
The management of the soldier’s home has garnered intense scrutiny after the first several deaths at the nursing home were not immediately reported to local and state officials. To date, the state’s Executive Office of Health and Human Services reported 35 deaths at the facility, including 30 deaths of veterans who have tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, according to Western Mass News. Meanwhile, 76 residents and 73 staff have tested positive for the disease.
“Our hearts go out to the families of the veterans who passed away,” Eric Dreiband, Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, said in a statement. “We owe it to the veterans, their families, and the public to investigate the facts, determine what happened, ensure compliance with the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act, and protect those veterans who continue to reside at the Soldiers’ Home.”
U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling echoed Dreiband’s comments, saying that they would “aggressively investigate recent events at the home” and would make the required changes to the facility to ensure patient safety in the future.
State officials said that the staff at the nursing home had not notified them about the first CCP virus deaths for at least half a week at the end of March.
“On [March 29] I directly reached out to the superintendent of the facility, Bennett Walsh,” Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse said in a press conference conducted on Facebook. “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.”
Morse said he first learned about the deaths at the facility on March 27 and received anonymous tips from “folks affiliated with the Soldiers’ Home describing the conditions and the gravity of the situation” on March 28.
Holyoke Soldiers’ Home superintendent Bennett Walsh, who has since been placed on paid administrative leave, refuted the officials’ claim, saying that the facility had notified state officials on March 27 that 28 veterans had exhibited symptoms and two veterans had died.
“State officials knew that Holyoke needed as much help as possible. No one was kept in the dark,” Walsh told WBUR in a statement.
The incident also caught the attention of lawmakers, who expressed concern over the potential further spread of the virus in other state-run nursing home facilities.
“We remain deeply concerned about the health and safety of veteran residents and staff at long-term care facilities across the Commonwealth,” the lawmakers wrote in a letter to Ryan Lilly, Director of the Veterans Affairs New England Healthcare System. “Although we are encouraged by efforts underway to stop the spread at both facilities, the Soldiers’ Homes, like VA facilities, hospitals and health care providers across Massachusetts, continue to lack desperately needed supplies and guidance.”