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Holyoke Soldiers’ Home hearing will feature staff accounts of coronavirus outbreak

Scott Gagnon joins other supporters of the Soldiers' Home in Holyoke at the entrance to Holyoke Community College before the start of a legislative hearing on the future of the home on Oct. 20, 2020.

DON TREEGER, THE REPUBLICAN/TNS

By STEPHANIE BARRY | masslive.com | Published: October 27, 2020

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HOLYOKE, Mass. (Tribune News Service) — The second hearing before a legislative oversight committee on the COVID-19 crisis at the Soldiers' Home in Holyoke is set to highlight accounts from staff who cared for sick and dying patients during the outbreak.

The hearing Tuesday at Holyoke Community College comes a week after an initial, in-person hearing largely featuring families of veterans. They testified about fathers and husbands who were sickened by or succumbed to the virus as the state-run nursing home for veterans reportedly descended into chaos.

At least 76 veterans died from the virus, which began to blaze through the long-term care facility in March.

The outbreak prompted resignations of top administrators and medical staff, and criminal charges against former Superintendent Bennett Walsh and Medical Director Dr. David Clinton.

Walsh and Clinton were charged with 10 criminal counts each related to neglect and bodily harm. They are scheduled to be arraigned in Hampden Superior Court on Nov. 5.

Attorneys for Walsh, a decorated U.S. Marine Corps veteran, have argued he has been scapegoated by state officials attempting to duck responsibility.

Gov. Charlie Baker commissioned an independent report from Boston attorney Mark Pearlstein that painted a bleak picture of the early trajectory of the virus, when two dementia units were combined and so many veterans began to die a refrigerated truck was stationed outside to act as a makeshift morgue.

The Pearlstein report called the merging of units “baffling” and “catastrophic” and quoted many employees in the midst of the crisis.

“A recreational therapist who was instructed to help with the move said that she felt like she was ‘walking [the veterans] to their death,’ and that the veterans were ‘terrified,’” the report read, adding that a social worker also involved in combining the units “felt it was like moving the concentration camp — we [were] moving these unknowing veterans off to die.”

A roster of those slated to testify was not available.

The 17-member joint legislative committee formed in the wake of the outbreak does not have subpoena powers, so testimony is voluntary.

A third hearing for current and former administrators is pending, committee members have said.

The goal of the lawmakers’ panel is to conduct its own review, identify root causes that contributed to the apparent breakdown during the pandemic and recommend reforms through legislation and funding.

The Holyoke Soldiers' Home Coalition — a network of family members, veterans and advocates formed in the wake of the outbreak — plans to hold a second stand-out at the entrance of Holyoke Community College on Tuesday morning. The grassroots group has maintained momentum and a statewide presence in calling persistently for reforms, including modernization of the home and increased funding and staffing.

“We continue to press the state on what we believe are the key areas that need attention, and we lend our voices in support of our family members who have been through so much these past several months,” the coalition said in a statement. “We ‘stand out’ to tell our elected officials that we support our family members, and we want to see action taken to create a better future for the Soldiers' Home.”

State Sen. John Velis, D- Westfield, represents a district that includes Holyoke and is a veteran himself. He said he and his staff have mulled feedback he received in “listening sessions” with families over the summer and the first round of hearings.

Velis said he plans to press witnesses on Tuesday about the need for an ombudsman to act as conduit between the veterans and their families and the staff and administrators of the Soldiers' Home.

“Families and residents need an independent, impartial and confidential person to talk to when things come up,” Velis said. “An ombudsman would be that independent watchdog on the ground who investigates issues when they arise.”

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State Rep. Linda Dean Campbell chairs a legislative hearing on the future of the Soldier's Home in Holyoke held at Holyoke Community College on Oct. 20, 2020.
DON TREEGER, THE REPUBLICAN/TNS