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Flags to fly at half-staff at Holyoke Soldiers’ Home after at least 52 veterans die of coronavirus

An American flag flies at half-staff on April 20, 2020 at the Soldiers' Home in Holyoke, Mass. where over 50 veterans have died from coronavirus.

DON TREEGER, MASSLIVE.COM/TNS

By JEANETTE DEFORGE | MassLive.com | Published: April 21, 2020

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HOLYOKE, Mass. (Tribune News Service) — With at least 52 veterans having died from coronavirus at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home and a dozen dead at the Chelsea Soldiers’ Home, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker advised all flags to be lowered to half-staff at both facilities, as well as at the Massachusetts Veterans Memorial Cemeteries in Agawam and Winchendon.

The advisory comes after families of veterans and the Military Order of the Purple Heart complained that the flags at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home had been raised after flying at half-staff for a period of time in previous weeks.

The flags are to be “lowered to half-staff as a mark of solemn respect and in honor of the lives of all departed veterans during this period,” Veteran Services Secretary Francisco Urena announced on his Facebook page on Sunday. “This order should begin immediately and shall end at the conclusion of Governor Baker’s Emergency Order regarding COVID-19.”

The state Executive Office of Health and Human Services on Monday announced two more residents at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home died overnight. Since the first resident was tested positive on March 21 a total of 52 residents have been confirmed to have died of coronavirus, results are pending for another veteran who died and the cause of another death is unknown. Eight other residents have died in the same time period from other causes.

In addition, 89 residents have contracted the disease and 11 other veterans have been tested and their results are pending. When the first case was known there were about 210 veterans living at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home and now 63 of those residents have tested negative, state officials said.

After state officials were alerted by the employees’ union and Mayor Alex B. Morse about their concerns that the virus was rapidly spreading in 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 reported in court records that he is believed to have contracted the coronavirus, has denied any mismanagement and called any accusations of wrong-doing as “outrageous.”

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 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.

The directors have continued to contract with more social workers from local agencies to assist staff during the week and over especially over the weekends. The social workers are trying to keep families informed and help them contact residents while the home remains closed to visitors, officials said.

On Monday the Military Friends Foundation is delivering a donation of 20 iPads for veterans to use to contact their families and for their personal entertainment, officials said.

There are four different investigations taking place to find out what happened at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home and to prevent it from reoccurring. They are being conducted by the governor’s office, state Attorney General Maura Healey, U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling and state legislators.

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