With COVID-19 dominating the headlines nationally and globally, it is still shocking to see what has happened in Massachusetts at a Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke, where more than 70 veterans died in a short span. Families are searching for answers while the state is coming under fire for putting these veterans’ lives at unnecessary risk.
Families of the deceased veterans said that the home was not only ill-prepared for the coronavirus pandemic, but the home’s management also made poor decisions that unnecessarily put more veterans at risk leading to the death of many. Even health care workers who work at the facility called out the protocol, calling the facility at Holyoke, “a death trap.”
The facility is coming under increasing scrutiny as federal officials are conducting an investigation into whether the veterans were denied proper medical attention.
Bennett Walsh, the Superintendent of the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home in western Mass. has been placed on paid administrative leave. He insisted earlier in April that he relayed to the state government what was transpiring. According to Walsh, he informed that the facility was in “crisis mode” as severe staff shortages and the rapid spread of the coronavirus was crippling it and overwhelming the staff.
“What kind of a system is this? We’re talking about 21st century United States of America,” Kwesi Ablordeppe, a certified nurse aide who has worked at the soldiers’ home for many years said in an interview with WCVB Channel 5 in Boston. “We’re talking about the veterans who put their lives on the line to save us, okay. And is that how we’re going to treat them?”
Ablordeppe makes a good point. It was learned that when the first Covid-19 case was diagnosed, the facility initially moved out the other veterans from the patient’s room. But then, inexplicably, moved other veterans in. Worse still, after the first diagnosed veteran became symptomatic, he was still shockingly allowed to use the common areas, thereby infecting others.
Staffers at the hospital said that when patients started dying, rather than separating the residents from one another to lessen the chance of exposure, every veteran was moved to the same floor.
Six veterans were tightly clustered in rooms that had previously held four beds. Nine veterans were moved in the dining room, which was ill-equipped to handle sick patients and did not provide privacy. One staffer told the television station that while one veteran was gasping for his last breath and dying, right next to him, sans any screens or privacy curtain, another veteran was being fed.
“I couldn’t believe my eyes […] we packed so many veterans, six in the room, and we put nine in the dining room,” Ablordeppe added in the television interview. With a dearth of protective equipment available to the staff, some CNAs were reprimanded for wearing personal protective equipment without permission.
Joan Miller, another longtime nurse at the facility, said that persistent issues that have been plaguing the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home caused the pandemic there to “spread like wildfire.”
“Veterans were on top of each other,” she said. “We didn’t know who was positive and who was negative and then they grouped people together and that really exacerbated it even more,” Miller said. “That’s when it really blew up,” she added.
Holyoke held 230 veterans at the end of March. Less than 100 remain as the state has been moving out several of them in an effort to cut down on the virus’s spread.
Since late March, 71 residents have died of the virus. Among the employees 81 have also tested positive.
Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker has hired an outside attorney to conduct an investigation into the deaths. Mass. Attorney General Maura Healey is also investigating the facility’s actions to determine “what went wrong at this facility and determine if legal action is warranted.”
At best, there was some horrible mismanagement at this facility. It will be up to investigators to determine if that mismanagement was criminal — although, at first glance, it certainly appears so. Our veterans and senior citizens deserve better care.