Lawyer for former head nurse at Holyoke Soldiers' Home defends decisions made in thick of COVID-19 outbreak

By STEPHANIE BARRY | masslive.com | Published: December 23, 2020

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HOLYOKE, Mass. (Tribune News Service) — In March, as coronavirus deaths began to climb and after initial pleas for emergency backup were rebuffed by the state, a clinical team at the Soldier’s Home in Holyoke huddled to come up with a Plan B.

Former Chief Nursing Officer Vanessa Lauziere was in the huddle. According to an attorney for Lauziere — one of several employees who lost their jobs over the outbreak at the state-run facility for veterans — many were hung out to dry as veterans died by the dozens.

The death toll was 76 by June. At least 84 more veterans tested positive, along with dozens of staff, including Lauziere.

The state said Tuesday that a former Soldiers’ Home resident, who has been at Holyoke Medical Center since the outbreak, died Tuesday after earlier testing positive for COVID-19.

Lauziere, a nurse for 24 years, was among those forced to resign and publicly scorned as the decision-maker behind combining two dementia units in a bid to contain the virus. A report commissioned by Gov. Charlie Baker and authored by Boston attorney Mark Pearlstein called that decision “baffling” and “catastrophic.”

Her attorney said Lauziere has been miscast. While the outcome was tragic, the merging of the two units was a joint decision by a clinical team and what they viewed as their only hope when they were out of options, said Springfield attorney Jared Olanoff.

“The analogy I like to use is that the building was on fire and they were given a cup of water,” Olanoff said during an interview on Wednesday, the first public statement on Lauziere’s behalf.

Lauziere is one of four former staff members plus an ousted state official named in a $176 million class action lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in July. The complaint accuses the defendants of “deliberate indifference” that amounted to neglect and violated the veterans’ civil rights.

In keeping with his “cup of water” comparison, Olanoff said neglect could be argued if Soldiers’ Home leaders dumped the cup out on the sidewalk.

But he said Lauziere and other staff tried to use every drop of water as carefully as they could to help their charges. Many were already infirm and some were overcome by dementia.

Olanoff said the clinical team — which included former Medical Director Dr. David Clinton, ousted Superintendent Bennett Walsh and others — attempted to carefully triage veterans who were symptomatic, exposed and asymptomatic. They followed federal guidelines, which have evolved as the medical community has learned more about the spread of the virus, he added.

Clinton and Walsh were indicted on criminal neglect charges brought by state Attorney General Maura Healey’s office in September. They pleaded not guilty to charges in Hampden Superior Court on Nov. 5.

Olanoff said Lauziere is a witness in the AG’s case. She was never considered a target and has been granted immunity from criminal prosecution in exchange for her testimony before a grand jury, Olanoff said.

He declined to make her available for an interview, citing the lawsuit and other ongoing investigations.

To complicate matters during the initial days of the outbreak, according to Olanoff, many of the veterans had “do not resuscitate” or “do not hospitalize” orders. The clinical team tried to get those modified, with marginal success, through health care proxies.

“The Pearlstein report had one line in it that said: ‘They should have just sent all of them to a hospital,’” Olanoff said. “They would have taken any outside help they could get. It just wasn’t as easy as that.”

Spokeswomen for Baker and Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders have said previously Walsh wasn’t emphatic enough about the gravity of the crisis, despite emails he sent asking for help from the National Guard or other state medical personnel.

Those calls were answered only after eight veterans died and Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse raised a flag with Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito’s office. State reinforcements arrived three days after the dementia units were combined on March 27.

Walsh, a decorated U.S. Marine Corps combat veteran hired in 2016, was suspended and escorted from the building on March 31. Other staff, including Clinton, Lauziere and others were asked to resign after that. Among the state personnel casualties was former Secretary of Veterans’ Services Francisco Urena, also a defendant in the class action suit.

Olanoff said Clinton was the one who had the ultimate say in medical decisions. According to the Pearlstein report, Clinton claimed he was not involved in the decision to merge the dementia units. Pearlstein concluded this claim was “without merit.”

Olanoff argued that, if anyone, it was Clinton who “dropped the ball.”

“As to his claim that he wasn’t there, that was at best mistaken or at worst incorrect,” he said.

Clinton’s attorney has not responded to repeated requests for comment.

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