Independent Investigator to Probe Deadly Virus Outbreak at Holyoke Veterans' Facility

Fifteen veterans living at the facility have died with at least eight testing positive for the novel coronavirus.

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Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker announced Wednesday he had hired an independent lawyer to investigate a nursing facility in Holyoke where more than a dozen veterans have died amid an outbreak of the new coronavirus.

The Executive Office of Health and Human Services said Wednesday afternoon that two more residents of the Holyoke Soldiers' Home had died, bringing the total to 15.

Baker's office said in a press release that attorney Mark Pearlstein would investigate the events that led to the fatalities.

The investigation would also focus on the "management and organizational oversight of the COVID-19 response" at the facility.

The deaths, first reported to state officials Sunday, have raised concerns about veterans and other people living in senior facilities amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Baker said Tuesday that half of the victims who had died at that point had tested positive for COVID-19. Both of the people whose deaths were announced Wednesday tested positive, as well, according to Health and Human Services.

The deaths resulted in Bennett Walsh, superintendent of the facility, being placed on paid administrative leave. Additionally, Baker has promised to "get to the bottom of what happened, and when, and by whom" at the facility.

Questions continue to swirl around the facility's response to the outbreak.

Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse has accused Walsh of failing to report the deaths to authorities in timely fashion, and says Walsh and Francisco Urena, the secretary of Veterans’ Services, failed to act with urgency to the situation.

The mayor of Holyoke is speaking out after more than a dozen veterans died at the Soldiers' Home.

In a Facebook video, Morse said he first heard Friday of a "case that turned into several cases" at the facility. The next day, his administration received an anonymous tip about the "gravity of the situation" and contacted the facility. He said he did not hear back that day.

Morse said he contacted Walsh Sunday and was "shocked" to learn there had been eight veteran deaths between Wednesday and Sunday "without any public notification, without any notification to my office" or to state officials.

At the Soldiers' Home in Holyoke, 11 residents have died after a coronavirus outbreak.

He added he was "incredibly disappointed" in a "clear lack of urgency shown by Walsh, adding he was repeatedly told that those who had died had underlying conditions.

"I'm not disputing that people have underlying health conditions or the folks that passed away are in a demographic that is less able to fight the virus," he said. "But that's certainly not an excuse for improper isolation of those folks that did test positive."

Morse said he then called Urena, the veterans' services secretary, and left the conversation -- as well as that with Walsh -- feeling "disappointed in the lack of urgency or action."

Gov. Baker extends the stay-at-home order through May 4.

State officials, once alerted by Morse, sent a team of health officials to assess the situation and deployed the National Guard to assist in the response.

Baker said he and other top state officials learned about the situation at Holyoke Soldiers' Home Sunday night.

A new command team is in place and public health officials are reviewing the health of everyone at the facility, Baker announced. All patients and staff are being tested for the new coronavirus now, he said, and the Massachusetts National Guard is being deployed there, along with medical professionals from other states and resources from Massachusetts' supply of personal protective equipment.

In a heartbreaking Facebook post, Greg Monette spoke about his dad, U.S. Army Col. Ted Monette, a veteran of the Vietnam War and Persian Gulf War. Monette lived at the nursing home and died from complications with Covid-19 early Monday.

Greg Monette said the Soldiers' Home has been under quarantine since mid-March and that he wasn't able to see or speak with his dad for weeks due to his dad's Parkinson's disease affecting his speech and clarity.

In addition to the deaths, 10 residents have tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, and 25 residents are awaiting test results, according to NBC affiliate WWLP. Seven staff members have also reportedly tested positive for the virus.

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