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Flags and balloons are placed around the sign of Holyoke Soldiers' Home on April 3, 2020 in honor of the veterans who have died because of COVID-19.

Flags and balloons are placed around the sign of Holyoke Soldiers' Home on April 3, 2020 in honor of the veterans who have died because of COVID-19. (TNS)

Flags and balloons are placed around the sign of Holyoke Soldiers' Home on April 3, 2020 in honor of the veterans who have died because of COVID-19.

Flags and balloons are placed around the sign of Holyoke Soldiers' Home on April 3, 2020 in honor of the veterans who have died because of COVID-19. (TNS)

A May, 2018 aerial view of the Holyoke Soldiers' Home in Holyoke, Mass.

A May, 2018 aerial view of the Holyoke Soldiers' Home in Holyoke, Mass. (TNS)

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. Department of Justice opened an investigation Friday into a veterans home in Holyoke, Mass., where nearly 30 veterans died after contracting the coronavirus.

The state-run Holyoke Soldiers' Home is being investigated for violating residents’ civil rights, the Justice Department announced. Federal authorities will decide whether the home complied with the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act, which aims to protect the rights of people in correctional facilities, nursing homes and mental health facilities.

“We owe it to the veterans, their families and the public to investigate the facts, determine what happened … and protect those veterans who continue to reside at the Soldiers' Home,” said Eric Dreiband, assistant attorney general for civil rights.

The federal civil rights investigation will be separate from other state and independent investigations.

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker ordered an independent investigation into whether residents were provided adequate medical care, and state Attorney General Maura Healey announced her office would investigate. State legislators said they would also look into the home’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. Bennett Walsh, the superintendent of the veterans home, is under suspension during the investigations.

The first detected case of the coronavirus at the Holyoke facility was March 21. In the following weeks, dozens more contracted the virus and nearly 30 have died.

The number of deaths at the facility caused by coronavirus had grown to 28 by Thursday, according to multiple local news reports. In addition, 69 veterans and 68 employees had tested positive.

About 130 residents had tested negative for the virus. Some of those veterans have been moved off site.

Walsh, a retired Marine Corps lieutenant colonel, has defended how he and his staff responded to the outbreak. He said he separated residents who had contracted the virus from the rest of the population and provided daily reports to multiple state agencies about the situation. Walsh claimed he requested assistance from the National Guard but was denied it.

“State officials knew that Holyoke needed as much help as possible. No one was kept in the dark,” Walsh said in a statement.

Baker said during a news conference that he wasn’t made aware of the outbreak until the night of March 29. By that time, about a dozen residents had tested positive and at least two had died.

U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling said the Justice Department would “aggressively investigate” the home and may require Massachusetts to adopt reforms to ensure patient safety.

“My condolences to the families of those veterans who died while in the home’s care,” Lelling said. “We will get to the bottom of what happened here.”

Nationwide, coronavirus cases have surged in nursing homes. Residents are vulnerable to the virus because of their age and underlying health conditions. Facilities have implemented measures, such as prohibiting visitors and screening residents and employees for possible infections.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued special guidance for long-term care facilities, suggesting they restrict all visitors and volunteers, implement “active screening” of patients for respiratory symptoms and cancel all group activities and communal dining.

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Nikki Wentling has worked for Stars and Stripes since 2016. She reports from Congress, the White House, the Department of Veterans Affairs and throughout the country about issues affecting veterans, service members and their families. Wentling, a graduate of the University of Kansas, previously worked at the Lawrence Journal-World and Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. The National Coalition of Homeless Veterans awarded Stars and Stripes the Meritorious Service Award in 2020 for Wentling’s reporting on homeless veterans during the coronavirus pandemic. In 2018, she was named by the nonprofit HillVets as one of the 100 most influential people in regard to veterans policymaking.
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