Fifth in a series on municipal leaders across Massachusetts and how they’re contending with the COVID-19 pandemic. Here are previous stories on Chelsea City Manager Tom Ambrosino, Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse, Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer, and Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone.
Five weeks ago, CommonWealth interviewed Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse for a series on how municipal leaders across the state were dealing with the onslaught of the coronavirus. The story, which was published on March 29, indicated Morse was working long days making sure services and resources were in place.
The day after the story was published news broke that dramatically changed the situation in Holyoke and altered Morse’s response to the coronavirus. There was a COVID-19 outbreak at the state-run Holyoke Soldiers’ Home that initially claimed 11 lives. Morse learned of issues at the facility on a Friday and confirmed the size of the problem in a chat with Superintendent Bennett Walsh on Sunday night. Concerned Walsh lacked a “sense of urgency,” Morse reached out to the Baker administration, which on Monday suspended Walsh with pay and called in a new team to run the facility.
As of Saturday, 65 veteran residents at the home who tested positive for COVID-19 had died, and another 83 veterans and 81 employees had tested positive. Several other private nursing homes in Holyoke have also had outbreaks. According to state statistics, Mt. St. Vincent Nursing Home in Holyoke and Mont Marie Rehabilitation and Healthcare Center each had between 10 and 30 cases, while CareOne and Day Brook Village Senior Living both had more than 30 cases.
That’s a minimum of 309 positive cases at Holyoke long-term care facilities, and the number is probably much bigger since the state data only provide ranges and not precise numbers. The 309 cases would represent 59 percent of the 519 total cases in the city.
COVID-19 deaths are harder to track. The city does not publish data on the number of COVID-19 deaths in Holyoke and neither does the state. Between the deaths at the Soldiers’ Home and three deaths at other nursing homes reported on Wednesday by the Daily Hampshire Gazette, there have been 65 COVID-19 deaths at long-term care facilities in Holyoke. That means deaths at long-term care facilities in Holyoke represent 22 percent of all deaths in Hampden County, which is the hardest-hit county in the state on a per capita basis.
In an interview on Friday, Morse said he has learned over the last five weeks that long-term care facilities, regardless of their ownership structure, are not equipped to deal with the coronavirus. He is calling for a state takeover of the facilities.
“We’re seeing quite clearly in Holyoke the impact of this virus on nursing homes and I’m not convinced…that our nursing homes and facilities are equipped to prevent outbreak and keep people as safe as possible,” Morse said.
Morse said he doesn’t think Holyoke is unique. “We’re seeing similar news through the state,” he said.
Indeed, 56 percent of the 2,899 COVID-19 deaths in Massachusetts have occurred at long-term care facilities.
Morse, a Democrat running for Congress, said he has heard conflicting reports from nursing home administrators, staff, and family members about problems such as staffing shortages and a lack of appropriate isolation for sick patients.
Morse said he would like to see the state step in at all nursing homes the way it did once problems were discovered in the Soldiers’ Home – to recruit nurses and ensure staffing ratios are appropriate, develop proper protocols, supply staff with personal protective equipment, conduct inspections, and do mass testing.
“Local boards of health don’t have capacity to do this on their own,” Morse said.
The mayor would not comment on the current situation at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home and whether the state actions are adequate, saying he did not have enough information. Walsh, the superintendent who is on paid leave, has insisted he updated superiors repeatedly as the crisis worsened at his facility. Three investigations are ongoing, one by a former prosecutor recruited by Gov. Charlie Baker and two others by the offices of US Attorney Andrew Lelling and Attorney General Maura Healey.
The rising tide of cases and deaths at long-term care facilities prompted a flurry of action. The state is rushing to do baseline testing at every facility using the National Guard and has increased financial support of long-term care facilities.
There have been calls from within the industry for additional state assistance – although not for a state takeover. The Massachusetts Senior Care Association, which represents nursing homes, has asked the state to expand COVID-19 testing for residents and staff, to ensure frontline staff have personal protective equipment, and to provide additional funding to pay an increased wage to staff and hire additional workers. Tara Gregorio, president of the association, was unavailable Friday to discuss Morse’s comments.
The union representing many health care and nursing home workers, 1199SEIU, has asked for expanded testing, hazard pay, better access to personal protective equipment, retraining so workers can be redeployed to nursing homes, and access to support services like childcare and emergency housing for nursing home workers.
Morse said he has heard about these requests from all sides. “We’ve been inundated with messages, calls, and emails from employees of facilities, family members of people that live in facilities, in some cases administrators saying they need more help,” Morse said.
“The status quo isn’t good enough,” Morse added. “We need to protect the most vulnerable members of our community.”