NEW DOCUMENTS RELEASED by the former superintendent of the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home show that top state officials – including Secretary of Veterans’ Services Francisco Urena – knew about the growing COVID-19 outbreak at the home a week before Gov. Charlie Baker said he learned of it.
Baker has repeatedly said that he and Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders, who is leading the state’s coronavirus response, first learned of the COVID-19 outbreak at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home on Sunday night, March 29, in a call from Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse. Morse at the time said he had talked with Holyoke Soldiers’ Home Superintendent Bennett Walsh and didn’t “sense a sense of urgency,” so he called Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito, who brought in Baker.
The governor said his administration responded immediately, putting Walsh on paid administrative leave, bringing in Western Massachusetts Hospital CEO Val Liptak to run the facility, and dispatching a clinical command team to stabilize the home. By then, 11 veterans at the facility had died.
William Bennett, Walsh’s attorney, on Tuesday released 58 pages of documents, which include emails, critical incident reports, and other communications indicating high-ranking members of Baker’s administration, including his own veterans’ services cabinet secretary and a top aide to Sudders, were well aware of the problem.
Bennett suggested the reason Walsh was suspended was not for mishandling the Soldiers’ Home situation but because Walsh spoke to Morse about the outbreak at the Solders’ Home without prior approval from Baker administration officials, which Bennett said made unnamed state officials “livid.”
The documents show that Walsh told Urena and Deputy Secretary of Health and Human Services Dan Tsai that a veteran tested positive for COVID-19 on March 22. Walsh continued to keep administration officials informed as more positive tests came back and as veterans who tested positive for the illness began to die later that week. Walsh also requested help from the National Guard on Friday, March 27, but National Guardsmen were not sent to the facility until the following week, once the outbreak became public.
“For anyone to suggest he covered up, concealed, or tried to hide the public health crisis affecting the veterans he was committed to serve is a slander on his good name,” Bennett said at a press conference in Springfield.
Brooke Karanovich, a spokeswoman for the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, declined to respond to the allegations, citing an ongoing investigation. “The circumstances that led to the heartbreaking situation at Holyoke Soldiers’ Home – including management and oversight – are the subject of a full and impartial investigation ordered by the governor, led by Attorney Mark Pearlstein,” Karanovich said.
According to Bennett, Walsh was first notified on March 21 that a veteran tested positive for COVID-19. Bennett said Walsh told Urena immediately.
The documents show that Sunday morning, March 22, Walsh filed a critical incident report with the Department of Veterans’ Services and the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, saying that one veteran had tested positive for COVID-19 and had been placed in isolation. Five other veterans were symptomatic and being tested. Walsh emailed the critical incident report to several state officials, including Urena and Tsai. Walsh also wrote in the critical incident report that he had informed the Holyoke Board of Health and the state Department of Public Health.
Over the next few days, additional veterans fell sick and Walsh informed state officials, even though the state at the time was only requesting reports of confirmed cases. An undated text message shows Urena asking Bennett whether he received results back from 20 COVID-19 tests that had been conducted, apparently the week of March 22.
On Wednesday, March 25, Walsh filed another critical incident report, copying Urena, Tsai, and their staffs. He wrote that a Soldiers’ Home staff member had tested positive for COVID-19. That same day, a Department of Public Health official emailed Urena informing him that state Department of Public Health staff had a call with Holyoke Soldiers’ Home staff and “it sounds like Holyoke staff are doing everything they can and consistent with DPH recommendations.” Walsh was copied on that email.
Also on March 25, the first veteran died. Bennett said Walsh orally informed officials of the death.
Bennett and Urena would continue to communicate via text about COVID-19 test results that week, and cases were logged in to the state’s COVID-19 case tracker, run by the Office of Health and Human Services.
On Friday, March 27, the legal counsel for the Soldiers’ Home, Mark Yankopoulos, informed Colleen Arons, an administrator at the Office of Health and Human Services apparently responsible for the state database, that the home had nine residents and one employee test positive for COVID-19. Arons responded to Yankopoulos via email that she was “not planning to include the 2 deaths since those results are pending,” an apparent reference to suspected COVID-19 deaths.
Later that day, Walsh emailed Arons, Urena, and other staff to confirm that one veteran who died had tested positive for COVID-19.
Suzanne Quersher, director of labor relations at the Office of Health and Human Services, wrote in an email to Walsh that day that she understands that “Holyoke needs as much help as it can get now.”
Walsh asked Urena, in a separate email on which Health and Human Services officials were copied, to request medical assistance from the National Guard.
“We are exploring all options at this time,” Urena responded. Bennett said he does not know if Urena requested the National Guard in response to Walsh’s request.
Urena did ask if Walsh had any luck convincing recent staff retirees to return to work to help out.
On Sunday morning, March 29, Walsh told Urena that 28 veterans had been tested, 10 tests had come back positive, and two veterans had died with COVID-19.
The documents also show that Walsh had raised concerns about staffing during the course of that week, after 40 staffers called out sick one day.
Baker has hired former federal prosecutor Pearlstein to conduct an independent investigation, and additional investigations are underway by US Attorney Andrew Lelling, Attorney General Maura Healey, and the state inspector general.
None of the official investigators have yet released their findings. The outbreak at the Soldiers’ Home has been attracting national attention, with recent stories in the New York Times and Washington Post.
Bennett said with the recent attention, he did not want the allegations against Walsh to go unanswered. “I felt it was incumbent on me to step forward and set the record straight,” Bennett said.
Walsh did not attend Bennett’s press conference. So far, Walsh’s only public statements have come in written statements delivered through his attorney. Bennett is a former Hampden County District Attorney and is also Walsh’s uncle.
As of Tuesday, the coronavirus outbreak at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home had claimed the lives of 76 veteran residents. Another 75 residents and 84 employees have tested positive for the virus.