'Rip through the heart': Holyoke Soldiers' Home marks somber Memorial Day
By JIM KINNEY | The Republican, Springfield, Mass. | Published: May 23, 2020
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HOLYOKE (Tribune News Service) — COVID-19 has caused a "tremendous rip through the heart" of the Soldiers' Home in Holyoke, Gov. Charlie Baker said in an online video Memorial Day observance for state-run nursing home Friday evening.
Baker recalled his visits to the state-run facility over his five years as governor.
"Memorial Day has always been a particularly special treat to come in and share time with the residents, with families in many cases, and with the staff," he said. "I can tell you that we share the sense of sorrow and loss that I know so many carry because of the impact of COVID-19."
Baker's administration and those of his predecessors are coming under fire now for longstanding staffing deficiencies at the home, shortages critics say contributed to overcrowding and to the spread of the coronavirus.
The Soldiers' Home suffered what was reportedly one of the deadliest coronavirus outbreak of any long-term health care facility in the country. Seventy-four residents who died since mid-March tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, and another 74 survivors have also tested positive. The outbreak is the subject of state and federal investigations.
State officials now plan staffing changes and a drop in the home's capacity in order to provide more space between patients and prevent more outbreaks.
Traditionally the Soldiers' Home's Memorial Day observances are done live. But this one was not in person and not even broadcast live. Instead it was a video edited to include submissions from community members and made available on the Home's Facebook page at 5pm Friday.
The 15-minute ceremony featured an in invocation by the Rev. Jacob Brooks, a chaplain with the Massachusetts Army National Guard. National Guard members were called in to help the home get a handle on the the outbreak.
Also speaking was Val Liptak, a registered nurse and director of Western Massachusetts Hospital in Westfield, who was tapped by the state to oversee the home when Superintendent Bennett Walsh was placed on paid administrative leave.
"This Memorial Day has special significance for everyone who has been part of the Soldiers' Home of Holyoke over the past year," she said. "The entire Soldiers' Home team wishes everyone could have gathered today to honor your loved ones."
She thanked the Guard; Holyoke Medical Center, which took in residents to relieve crowding and improve isolation after the outbreak; and the community at large for its generosity.
There were taped musical performances. Sara Michel played taps on violin and Michele Hall sang the national anthem. Both are recreation therapists at the home.
Raymond A. Benoit, a veterans home resident and a Navy veteran, sang "God Bless America."
The names of all Soldiers' Home residents who died in the preceding year appeared as graphics on the screen.
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