A UNION OFFICIAL who represents nurses at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home on Tuesday described a continuing culture of fear among employees, which has resulted in an unwillingness to speak out about the serious problems at the home.

“Many people told me they’re not coming today (because) they’re afraid. They don’t want retaliation,” Andrea Fox, associate director of labor with the Massachusetts Nurse Association, testified at a hearing at Holyoke Community College before a legislative committee looking into the COVID-19 outbreak at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home.

Yet, in a hearing that lasted for more than five hours, several people working inside the home, as well as former nurses, did testify and delivered devastating accounts of being denied personal protective equipment when caring for veterans with COVID-19, of falling ill themselves, and being forced to witness horrific conditions and dying veterans.

“Staff that went through it are broken,” said nurse Theresa King. “We will never be the same. Our lives are forever changed.”

The committee will hold another hearing to hear from staff virtually on Thursday.

The COVID-19 outbreak at the Soldiers’ Home led to the deaths of 76 veterans. Staffing at the home has long been a problem, and a lack of staffing was named in an independent investigative report as a contributor to the pandemic’s spread. Staff were floating between units, potentially spreading the virus. A large number of staff called in sick, leading to a catastrophic decision to combine two locked dementia units, with a mix of sick and healthy veterans, into a single overcrowded unit.

The testimony mentioned these problems, while also spotlighting the trauma staff members endured in the home.

Kwesi Ablordeppey, as has been reported previously, cared for the first veteran diagnosed with COVID-19, and was given a disciplinary write-up for donning personal protective equipment before the veteran’s COVID test results came back.

Ablordeppey, a chapter president with SEIU Local 888, said by March 13 the administration had removed protective masks from the floors. He called his supervisor to get a mask, received no answer, so headed to an infection control office. On his way, he saw masks set aside for screening at the facility’s entry and tried to take one to care for the sick patient, but was told he could not.

Joseph Ramirez, a certified nursing assistant at the home for five years, said even once the first veteran showed COVID symptoms and was wandering around an Alzheimer’s unit, he was told masks were taken off the floors to “save them for later.”

Ramirez took care of a veteran dying from COVID-19 on March 24, in personal protective equipment, then became seriously ill with COVID-19 himself. When he returned to work April 10, he was devastated to find that of about 40 veterans on the unit where he worked, 22 had died. He described the home as a ghost town. “Room after room was empty, beds completely stripped, veterans I remembered, I used to take care of, were no longer there,” he said. Of his colleagues, Ramirez said, “They looked defeated, they looked tired and yet they were still there.”

Staffers said they had for years dealt with inadequate staffing and mandated overtime. King said staffers were working required double shifts, leaving at 11:30 p.m. after 16 hours of work, driving home, then returning the next morning at 7 a.m. Ramirez said his unit has 20 Alzheimer’s patients with significant needs and three nursing assistants. He learned of another unit where a single nursing assistant was alone with a nurse on a shift with 11 veterans.

Amid the outbreak, state officials fired former superintendent Bennett Walsh, and the entire top staff of the Soldiers’ Home has turned over. Yet staff say problems remain. Ramirez described the Walsh administration as “bullies” and “abusive,” but he said now nurses are being bombarded with paperwork, which takes away from their time to care for veterans. “Every day we get a new policy, we have to do this now… it’s too much when you’re trying to come back and have a new normal,” he said.

Fox said staff are routinely being called before the home’s lawyer for offenses that could have been addressed less confrontationally – someone leaving a medicine cart open or a nurse on a double shift who checked a particular piece of equipment nine times instead of ten. Instead of addressing a problem in the moment, Fox said, the home’s managers “terrify people, intimidate them, bring them in and question them.”

Fox said this attitude is harming staff already suffering from the trauma of the pandemic. Many are experiencing exhaustion, depression, or anxiety or are having difficulty eating or sleeping.

Low morale is also hurting the home’s ability to recruit staff to fill 40 vacant positions for nurses and nursing assistants, Fox said. King has seen seven coworkers retire in the last few weeks.

King has worked at the Soldiers’ Home on and off since 1989, and came back most recently in 2010. She is now on anti-depressants and trying to make it through every day. While she hoped to finish out her career at the home, she said, “I have to decide if I’m going to stay there.”