Family members say they were left in the dark as COVID-19 spread through Holyoke Soldiers Home

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Holyoke Soldiers Home

Staff Sgt. Sam Schrader, Airman Will Borcy, and Airman Emanizaia Alves, 104th Civil Engineering Squadron firefighters, collect donations during a boot drive June 9, 2019, at Barnes Air National Guard Base, Massachusetts.

As the coronavirus swept through the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, claiming the lives of six residents and possibly a half dozen more, family members of two veterans say they were left in the dark about what was happening in the state-run facility.

“He is my only form of communication and he knows nothing,” East Longmeadow resident Roberta Twining said of her husband, Timothy Twining.

A longtime employee at the facility, meanwhile, told The Republican Tuesday that staff have faced supply shortages and limited access to personal protective equipment. The employee has been out sick for more than a week with a fever of 103 and other symptoms of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

The employee claimed supervisors had been reluctant at first to test patients for the virus, or to even isolate those showing symptoms.

“What has been going on is horrendous,” said the employee, who asked not to be named out of fear of being fired for speaking with the media. “The administration at the Soldiers’ Home has been negligent.”

Bennett Walsh, appointed in 2016 as superintendent of the facility that employs about 240 and is home to 210 veterans, was placed on paid administrative leave Monday. In announcing the action, state officials acknowledged for the first time that a number of recent deaths at the facility were attributed to the virus.

As of Tuesday afternoon, six of the veterans who died had tested positive. Results were pending for another five, and the cause of death for still another was unknown. A thirteenth veteran who died tested negative.

Walsh has not responded to requests for comment. Kevin Jourdain, a former Holyoke city councilor and chair of the Soldiers’ Home Board of Trustees, declined to comment and referred questions to the state.

Trustee Brian Q. Corridan, who left the board just over a month ago when he did not receive reappointment, said he believes Walsh is being unfairly targeted by the state with his suspension. “We have one of the most dedicated public servants being hung out to dry, being used as scapegoat unnecessarily. There are no bad people here. (Walsh and the staff) were following CDC guidelines right to the letter,” he said.

The board’s other trustees — Carmen Ostrander, Isaac J. Mass, Cesar Lopez, Cindy Lacoste and Christopher R. Dupont — have not made public comments.

As of early Tuesday evening, state officials had not responded to an email summarizing claims made by the family members and employee interviewed by The Republican / MassLive.

'We can't talk about it'

The news of the deaths shocked family members and elected leaders alike, and left relatives waiting for answers — and hoping for the best.

East Longmeadow resident Cheryl Turgeon said her father, Korean War Air Force veteran Dennis Thresher, was a “picture of health” on Friday. By Monday, she said, he seemed listless and fatigued.

COVID-19 cases had been reported on his floor, but she had no indication that he’d been tested.

“I am concerned. He’s sitting there right now, not being tested,” Turgeon said, adding that she had called the facility twice Tuesday morning but received no new information.

She said she doesn’t blame the staff. The nurses, she said, say, “We can’t talk about it. We can’t talk about it” — a directive she believes came from administrators.

In a statement Monday, state officials said any resident with COVID-19 symptoms is tested, and that Soldiers’ Home employees contact family members immediately to notify them of the test and its results. Members of the National Guard, meanwhile, have been sent to the facility to support on-site testing and help expedite results.

Resident Joe Langland Jr. is a 73-year-old Vietnam veteran who lives on the fourth floor of the home. As of late Tuesday he said he had not been tested. Staff told him everyone will be tested, but that it will take a little while for them to reach the fourth floor.

He said he had heard about one resident testing positive but only through one of the people who lives on his floor. He also said he heard staff had difficulty getting better masks.

Despite the situation at the home, he said he did not have any complaints about Walsh.

“I think the superintendent did a good job in an awful time,” Langland said.

Twining said that for two weeks she scoured social media for hints of what was happening at the facility. She learned about the outbreak through news reports on Monday.

“All last week I tried to get a hold of the nurses, the social workers, and nobody would return my call,” she said. “I think that they’re not allowed to tell the public anything.”

Turgeon said she received a phone call from an administrative assistant on the evening of March 22. The employee said it was an “informational call” to let families know a COVID-19 case had been confirmed at the Soldiers’ Home. The caller explained that the patient was in isolation, Turgeon said.

A letter signed by Walsh followed. “I write this letter to inform you that one of our long term care residents tested positive for COVID-19,” said the letter, which Turgeon shared with The Republican. “The Veteran is currently in quarantine in a private room.” Walsh went on to outline precautions underway at the facility, and wrote, “We will continue to share updates as new information becomes available.”

“You hoped for the best and you prayed,” Turgeon said of her reaction to the letter. “At no time did we know it was as serious as what was going on.”

Like Twining, she said she only learned about the extent of the crisis — including the deaths — through news reports on Monday. Turgeon said she was “floored” because she had been in daily phone contact with her father via staff at the facility.

The worker interviewed Tuesday said a patient in an Alzheimer’s ward developed a cough about two weeks ago, followed by a fever. The patient remained in the unit for at least two days, interacting with the roughly two dozen other patients, as well as staff. Eventually, the patient was tested — and the results came back positive.

In addition to the dead, 10 veterans have tested positive for COVID-19 and results are pending for about two dozen more. Seven employees tested positive.

The outbreak has been devastating for the facility’s staff.

“It’s so sad. It’s so sad,” the employee said. “I fear for my coworkers.”

Turgeon echoed the employee’s description of the impact on staff. “These nurses, these CNAs — they love their vets. They become like family to you,” she said, recalling how a nurse reassured her when her father was first admitted to the facility. “You feel so guilty dropping a parent off that you can no longer take care of.”

She called the outbreak a “travesty” for the patients who’ve already sacrificed so much.

“These guys have stories. They’ve jumped out of planes, they’ve been in combat,” Turgeon said. Of her father, she added: “He deserves a fighting chance.”

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