Coronavirus Spreads in Veterans’ Home, Leaving ‘Shuddering Loss for Us All’

NEWTON, Mass. — The mayor of Holyoke, Mass., got a letter over the weekend that deeply disturbed him.

“Are you aware of the horrific circumstances at the Soldiers’ Home?” the letter read.

The mayor, Alex Morse, reached out to the superintendent of the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, a state-managed nursing home for veterans, to figure out what was going on.

But by then, he said, the virus had spread more widely than he had expected: In a matter of five days, eight veterans had died. Others were sick; staff members were too.

The superintendent’s explanations left him “incredibly disappointed,” so the mayor called the lieutenant governor. By Monday, state officials had announced a series of major moves.

The superintendent of the facility, Bennett Walsh, was placed on administrative leave. A new command structure was put in place. The National Guard was brought in to speed up testing.

And that, Mr. Morse said, is increasingly the role of local government in the coronavirus crisis.

“Mayors should make themselves available, should be vigilant in getting as much information as possible,” he said. “Mayors have to know what’s going on within their community. I don’t have oversight over the facility, but it’s still my city.”

By Tuesday, 10 residents and seven staff members had tested positive for the coronavirus, with 25 more awaiting test results. Among 13 recent deaths, tests had come back positive for the virus in six cases, while five were still pending, another was inconclusive, and another came back negative.

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The 247-bed nursing facility, in operation since 1952, has struggled over the years with staff and funding shortages.

Flags in Holyoke, a city of 40,000 around 90 miles west of Boston, were lowered to half-staff on Tuesday in honor of the veterans who died.

“These are people who gave their all, who risked their lives to protect all of us, and they deserved better, frankly,” Mr. Morse said.

State Representative Aaron Vega, whose district includes Holyoke, said he was still trying to understand how the virus moved so swiftly through the home’s population without greater transparency.

“All of us in Western Mass support that home, and nobody knew anything,” he said. “The fact that nobody knew anything until it was in the news is trouble.”

In particular, he said, it is a mystery why deaths from the virus were not immediately reported to state officials.

Gov. Charlie Baker called the deaths “a shuddering loss for us all.”

“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,” he wrote in a statement posted on Twitter.

Most of those who have died were not identified.

But one of the dead was Theodore A. Monette, 74, a former senior official at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, who helped coordinate the emergency response in Lower Manhattan after the World Trade Center attacks, and in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

A retired U.S. Army colonel who had served in the Vietnam War and Persian Gulf war, Mr. Monette had moved into the facility two months ago after the death of his wife, who had been his caretaker.

“They told me he was probably the highest-ranked guy there,” but so self-deprecating that he would rarely tell anybody his rank, said his daughter, Aimee Monette.

She recalled that one of her father’s physical therapists once Googled him and returned to her afterward in wide-eyed amazement.

Ms. Monette said she had initially learned from a community message board on Facebook that some veterans at the Soldiers’ Home had contracted the virus.

An anxious nurse called her last week, she said, to report that her father’s oxygen levels had dropped. Ms. Monette said they should transfer him to a hospital.

“They’re all dealing with something completely new, and everyone’s scared,” she said. “I don’t want to place blame, but the protocol should have happened faster.” Mr. Monette died on Monday, and no memorial is yet scheduled, she said.

“He deserves the full-on Army taps and the flag and everything,” she said. “But we have to wait.”

In Holyoke, Mr. Morse, the mayor, said he spent the weekend moving up the chain of command with his message of alarm.

He said he confronted Mr. Walsh in a phone call on Sunday and was shocked “when the superintendent let me know there had been eight veteran deaths between Wednesday and Sunday without any notification to my office.”

Messages for Mr. Walsh were not immediately answered, and no one representing the Soldiers’ Home could be immediately reached for comment.

Mr. Morse said he then complained to the lieutenant governor of Massachusetts. Brooke Karanovich, a spokeswoman from the state’s Executive Office of Health and Human Services, said the state “took immediate action” as soon as it learned the extent of the coronavirus outbreak.

“The Commonwealth is making all resources available to the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home leadership team, including bringing in support from trained medical National Guard members,” she said. “We will continue to take action to protect the health and safety of the veteran residents.”

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