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Deaths at Holyoke Soldiers' Home prompt leadership change

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The state-run Holyoke Soldiers' Home is under the control of a new leader and a clinical command team as an outbreak of the coronavirus strikes and the facility deals with the deaths of 13 residents.

At least six of the residents who have died tested positive for COVID-19, and test results from five other deceased residents are pending, the Executive Office of Health and Human Services disclosed Monday evening in conjunction with word that it is installing new leadership at the home, which serves a population that is overwhelmingly older and in high-risk demographics.

Another 11 veterans living at the home and five staff members have tested positive for the respiratory disease, while 25 veterans who live at the Holyoke facility are waiting to receive their test results, EOHHS said.

"We will get to the bottom of what happened and when, and by who," Gov. Charlie Baker said Tuesday. He said the state's priority right now is to stabilize the facility and ensure the residents there are properly cared for.

Holyoke Soldiers' Home Superintendent Bennett Walsh was put on paid administrative leave and the Executive Office of Health and Human Services announced that Val Liptak, the CEO of Western Massachusetts Hospital, would take over administration of the home effectively immediately.

"As someone who has visited the Holyoke Soldiers' Home on many occasions to catch up with staff and residents, I am heartbroken by today's news. The loss of these residents to COVID-19 is a shuddering loss for us all," Baker tweeted Monday night.

The facility's residents are isolated and were told to quarantine themselves until they show no symptoms, the administration said, and the National Guard has been called in to help with on-site testing of all residents and to expedite the results.

"We have also implemented an onsite clinical command team comprised of medical, epidemiological, and operational experts responsible for the comprehensive and rapid response to the outbreak of COVID-19. All of these enhancements will build upon the existing protocols and work that align with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Department of Veterans Affairs, and Massachusetts Department of Public Health guidance," Deputy Heath and Human Services Secretary Dan Tsai said in a statement.

The clinical command team put in charge of continuing the COVID-19 related protocols already in place and implementing new ones includes "clinical operations experts from Commonwealth Medicine, epidemiologists from the Department of Public Health's Bureau of Infectious Diseases and Lab Sciences, the medical director at MassHealth, leadership from the Chelsea Soldiers' Home, and other clinical, operational, and logistical experts, including resources from MEMA," the administration said.

The command team met for the first time at noon on Monday and EOHHS said that all resources at the Holyoke Soldiers' Home are at the team's disposal as they lead the response to the COVID-19 outbreak.

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"It has been devastating to hear about the full extent of the COVID-19 outbreak at the Soldiers' Home," Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse said in a statement Monday evening. "While I am grateful that the state is now taking swift action to ensure residents and staff get necessary care and treatment, I am grief-stricken for those we have already lost, and my heart goes out to their families and friends. The devastating impact of this virus on an individual is made worse by the limitations on their loved ones to mourn and grieve in traditional ways for those who have passed."

Visits to the Holyoke facility have been restricted since March 14, the home has begun to take the temperatures of residents daily and of employees as they enter the building, employees are given personal protective gear when they enter the home, hand sanitation stations for employees have been added throughout the facility, and staff is disinfecting and treating high touch areas throughout the day, the administration said.

As of the latest report from the Department of Veterans' Services, the Holyoke Soldiers' Home had 256 residents, including 232 in long-term care.

The department described the facility as "a fully accredited health care facility" that "offers veterans quality long term health care and domiciliary accommodations. Holyoke also includes hospice care, on-site dental services, a veterans' assistancecenter, and a multi-service outpatient department."

Vietnam-era veterans are the largest population at Holyoke, with 111 Vietnam veterans being treated there. The home also serves 66 veterans of the Korean War and 66 World War II veterans, according to the report. All but seven of the home's veterans are at least 70 years old.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs most recently surveyed Holyoke in January 2019 and identified three standards -- out of the 158 total -- that were not met in Holyoke.

The home submitted a corrective action plan, and the VA accepted it, "certifying that the facility is in full compliance with its standards and regulations," the state Department of Veterans' Services said.

U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield, said he was shocked to learn of the deaths in Holyoke and that the news was "even more personal to me because I have an uncle who is a full-time resident there."

He said he has spoken with Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders and the Mass. Nurses Association "to share my concerns about the conditions at the home and to learn more about their plans to move forward."

Neal also said he plans to discuss the situation there with the governor directly. "Simply put, there must be accountability for what happened in Holyoke," Neal said.


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