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160 members of National Guard step in at Massachusetts veterans' home where at least 50 have died of coronavirus

Mini flags and balloons are placed around a sign at Holyoke Soldiers' Home in honor of the veterans who have died because of COVID-19 and to remember their service to the country.

HOANG LEON NGUYEN, THE REPUBLICAN/TNS

By JEANETTE DEFORGE | The Republican | Published: April 20, 2020

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HOLYOKE, Mass. (Tribune News Service) As investigations continue into how the coronavirus spread so quickly and throughout Holyoke Soldiers' Home, the number of veterans who have died from the coronavirus has now grown to at least 50.

The state Executive Office of Health and Human Services announced Sunday that two more residents at the state-run home had died in the past 24 hours due to the coronavirus and test results of another resident who died are pending. Another eight residents have died of other causes since the first resident tested positive for COVID-19 on March 21 and the cause of death for one more resident is unknown.

A total of 90 veterans at the home, which had about 210 residents when the pandemic began, have tested positive for the coronavirus. As of Sunday 66 residents remain negative for the disease and there are 10 other veterans are awaiting results on tests, officials said.

Of the employees at the Soldiers Home, 81 have tested positive, officials said.

"The Clinical Command continues to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak while bringing on additional management staff for nursing, facilities, operations and administration to complement the existing staff," officials said on Sunday.

After state officials were alerted by the employees' union and Mayor Alex B. Morse about their concerns that the virus was rapidly spreading through the facility, a team from Health and Human Services inspected the home on March 30. Before noon Superintendent Bennett Walsh had been placed on paid administrative leave and Val Liptak, CEO of Western Massachusetts Hospital was asked to take over management.

Walsh, who said he is also believed to have contracted COVID-19, denied any wrong-doing and accusations of mismanagement and said he continually updated state officials of the problems at the home.

The state also quickly set up a clinical team of experts to handle different facets of the crisis. About 160 National Guard members who have medical, logistical or operations expertise are also working at the home to augment the depleted staff, officials said.

Those now running the Soldiers' Home told the Board of Trustees on Thursday the focus is working to stabilize the Soldiers Home. While they continue to move and quarantine people to prevent others from being infected, the virus is still spreading, said Lisa Columbo a registered nurse the executive vice chancellor for Commonwealth Medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in Worcester, who is running the clinical team.

When the team entered the home, they found one unit had multiple people infected with COVID-19 and most units had at least one positive case. Because multiple staff were also out ill with the disease, 10 units had been combined into seven, creating an overcrowding situation allowing the disease to spread even more, she said.

There are four ongoing independent investigations into what occurred at the Soldiers' Home. Gov. Charlie Baker was the first to order an investigation and U.S. Attorney Andrew E. Lelling and state Attorney General Maura Healey have also announced they are looking into the problems. Legislators are also planning to call for a hearing on the Soldiers' Home when lawmakers return to session.

The Clinical Team is also conducting a staffing analysis, figuring the number of residents, the employee absentee rate and other factors to figure out a proper staffing ratio once the home stabilizes. Officials continue to hire nurses and certified nursing assistants as the crisis continues.

©2020 The Republican, Springfield, Mass.
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A flag is flown at half-staff at the Holyoke Soldiers' Home in honor of the veterans who have died because of COVID-19 and to remember their service to the country.
HOANG LEON NGUYEN, THE REPUBLICAN/TNS

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