11 veterans dead, several exposed after coronavirus outbreak at Soldiers’ Home in Massachusetts

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HOLYOKE, Mass. (WWLP) – The superintendent of a Massachusetts soldiers’ home was put on paid administrative leave Monday after the deaths of 11 veteran residents, some of whom tested positive for COVID-19.

Val Liptak, RN, CEO of Western Massachusetts Hospitals, will replace Superintendent Bennett Walsh and assume responsibility for the administration of the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke. Preston said residents who tested positive or awaiting results have been isolated and staff members who had contact with them have been advised to quarantine until they are asymptomatic.

Department of Veterans Services spokesman Anthony Preston said that as of Monday, the Soldiers’ Home had confirmed the following:

  • 11 veteran resident deaths (five tested positive for COVID-19, five pending test results, and one is unknown)
  • 11  veteran residents have tested positive for COVID-19
  • 25 veteran residents pending test results
  • Five staff members tested positive
  • Medical information regarding individual staff and veteran residents is deemed private and cannot be shared

Governor Charlie Baker in a tweet on Monday said he was heartbroken by the news and that the loss of the residents to the virus is a “shuddering loss for us all.”

He added that public health experts are at the Soldiers’ Home conducting a thorough review of the health status of staff and residents to plan appropriate next steps.

Health and Human Services Deputy Secretary Dan Tsai said in a statement it’s imperative that the home provides a safe environment for the veteran residents and the dedicated staff who serve them. 

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.  

Today’s actions underscore the state’s commitment to our veterans and frontline health care employees during this unprecedented public health crisis. 

Dan Tsai, Health and Human Services Deputy Secretary

On March 23, the state Department of Veteran’s Services confirmed a resident at the home tested positive for COVID-19. Mayor Alex Morse also released a statement expressing how devastating and grief-stricken it is to hear about the outbreak at the home.

“It has been devastating to hear about the full extent of the COVID-19 outbreak at the Soldiers’ Home,” said Mayor Morse. “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. To the families who have lost a loved one, know that all of Holyoke shares your grief. I’ve requested that flags in the City be lowered to half-mast tomorrow morning in their honor, for their service to our country, and to our community.”

This is a difficult day for our city, and it is almost certain that more difficult days will follow. Today is a painful reminder that while many people will experience mild symptoms or no symptoms at all, there are those among us who are at much higher risk, and we must be vigilant in our care for ourselves to ensure the safety of all. I call on all Holyokers to consider your actions, to be sure to follow social distancing to the best of your abilities, to contact your friends and loved ones, and to take care of yourselves both physically and mentally. While we need distance from each other now, we are in this fight together.

Secretary Sudders and her team have agreed to provide the City with frequent updates as the situation at the Soldiers Home unfolds, and I aim to continue to update the public with what we learn. It is in large part thanks to the outreach of staff from the State-run facility to my office on Saturday that I was alerted to the growing issues at the Soldiers’ Home. I want to thank Lieutenant Governor Polito and Secretary of Health and Human Services Sudders for taking immediate action upon my request, but most importantly, thank you to the nurses and staff at the Soldiers Home who cared for those whom we have lost, and who continue to care for those in need.”

Alex Morse, City of Holyoke Mayor

On Sunday, Debra Foley the Director of Communications and Volunteer Programs of Soldiers’ Home released the following statement:

The Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke continues to fulfill its commitment to the safety and well-being of its resident Veterans while supporting the health and safety of our staff durin this unprecedented public health crisis – including meeting all federal and state health standards.

The Massachusetts Department of Veterans stated the facility is taking additional precautionary measures that include the following:

  • All visitors restricted to the facility.     
  • Taking the temperature of employees as they enter the building.
  • Adding hand sanitation stations for employees as they enter the building and throughout the facility.
  • Disinfecting and treating high touch areas throughout the day.
  • Every employee receives Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) as they enter the facility.
  • Taking daily temperatures of the residents.
  • Posting signage on proper hand hygiene and how to prevent the spread of respiratory diseases like the flu and COVID-19.
  • Restricting movement of residents in the Long Term Care Facility and the Independent Living Facility.
  • Sending regular communications to update veterans, families and staff on current guidance for infection control and prevention.

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