2 Ex-Holyoke Soldiers' Home Officials Plead Not Guilty in Deadly COVID Outbreak

At least 76 veterans at the home died of the coronavirus dating back to March, one of the deadliest outbreaks in the nation

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Two former officials of the Holyoke Soldiers' Home in Massachusetts pleaded not guilty Thursday for their roles in the deadly coronavirus outbreak that killed at least 76 residents at the facility.

Bennett Walsh, the former superintendent, and David Clinton, the former medial director, face felony charges related to their March 27 decision to combine 42 veterans -- some positive for the disease and others not showing symptoms -- into a single unit that accommodates 25.

The two were arraigned remotely Thursday morning.

Walsh's attorney, Michael Jennings, vehemently defended the home's former top leader, arguing that conditions state attorneys attempted to set on both men as the legal process unfolds would color public perception against them.

"Believe me, nobody feels worse about this, other than the families, than Mr. Walsh does," Jennings said, later adding, "He's anxious to confront these charges and to defend himself."

Both face 10 counts total -- five counts of criminal neglect, which carry up to three years in state prison per count; and five counts of serious bodily injury, which carries up to 10 years per count.

The charges are based on the plight of five residents who were asymptomatic, and then put at "greater risk of harm or death" by Walsh and Clinton's decision to put them in the consolidated unit, according to Attorney General Maura Healey.

"To think about this now, knowing how contagious and deadly this virus is and continues to be, is most disturbing and the alleged details are even worse," Healey said when announcing the charges in September, adding that it ultimately led to "tragic and deadly results."

The attorney general's office began investigating the home in April and ultimately found that, faced with staffing shortages, Walsh and Clinton decided to consolidate two dementia units.

Emotions ran high as family members took the stand speaking to a special committee investigating one of the deadliest COVID-19 outbreaks in the state.

Residents who tested positive for coronavirus or showed symptoms were placed, six per a room, in dorm-like rooms that normally house four veterans. The residents who were thought to be asymptomatic were placed in nine beds in a dining room, "just a few feet apart from each other," according to Healey's office.

Healey is alleging that that several of the residents, categorized as “asymptomatic” by officials, actually did have coronavirus symptoms at the time. They were also mingling with people who tested positive in the next room, regardless of status, Healey alleges.

At least 76 veterans at the home died of the coronavirus dating back to March.

State attorneys on Thursday asked Hampden Superior Court Judge Edward McDonough to impose four conditions on both Walsh and Clinton: barring them from working in any long-term care facility while the case continues, ordering them to have no personal contact with victims' family members or witnesses, instructing them to check in monthly with probation, and requiring them to notify probation before any out-of-state travel.

They did not seek any bail requirement for either defendant.

Clinton's attorney had agreed to those requirements, but Jennings condemned the request as implying that his client is guilty and is a threat to the public.

Jennings emphasized that his goal was not to obstruct the case and that Walsh does not wish to find a new job in long-term care. He objected, he said, because of how those conditions would reflect on the defendants, claiming "there's enough bad perception in this case already."

"There's an implication in all of these things, there's a public perception in all of these things, that for some reason Mr. Walsh is being sanctioned because he's a danger to work in such a facility or that he's a person who might harass family members of the veterans that he loved so much," Jennings said.

Assistant Attorney General Kaushal Rana described the request as "pretty standard conditions in a criminal matter" that are reasonable given the allegations against Walsh and Clinton.

McDonough decided not to impose any of the conditions, instead instructing all parties that if any issues arise, Walsh and Clinton must inform their attorneys and that he could reconvene a hearing to impose conditions if the need becomes clear in the future.

Jennings cited Walsh's military service during the hearing, using his record to argue that the former superintendent -- who appeared on the Zoom call, as did Clinton -- will participate in any court events willingly.

"He's appeared everywhere he's been ever asked to appear in his life," Jennings said. "He appeared in Somalia, where his unit was well-decorated in the Black Hawk Down matter that we all saw so much about. He appeared in Iraq after 9/11 from 2001 through 2006, where he led over 500 combat missions in the streets of Fallujah and other places. He showed up in Afghanistan in 2010 where he was decorated for his service there."

The former superintendent and medical director of the Soldiers' Home in Holyoke have been indicted on criminal neglect charges for their roles in the deadly COVID-19 outbreak earlier this year, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey has announced.

Last month, workers at the facility told lawmakers that it wasn't adequately staffed, they weren't given enough protective equipment, and they were bullied by management during the outbreak.

Current and former staffers at the Soldiers' Home in Holyoke told the Joint Special Legislative Oversight Committee on Tuesday that the ordeal left them depressed and contemplating retirement.

“They have broken many of us,'' nurse Francine Kapinos said.

She said the home failed to test hospice patients, withheld protective equipment and shuffled patients and staff around the home at will.

“The staff who went through this are broken. We will never be the same,'' said nurse Theresa King, who said she now has trouble sleeping and concentrating.

Nurse Joseph Ramirez, who fell ill with COVID-19 himself, described administrators as “bullies'' who never explained the reasoning behind what an independent investigator called the “devastating'' decision to combine two locked dementia units.

The outbreak at the facility was one of the deadliest at a long-term care facility in the nation. The home's former superintendent and chief medical officer face criminal neglect charges.

The 17-member oversight committee is hearing testimony to understand the outbreak and recommend reforms.

A lawsuit has been filed connected to the COVID deaths of residents of a Holyoke veterans' home.

The State House News Service and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

NBC, State House News Service, The Associated Press
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