As many as 11 residents of the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home have died in recent days — potentially all from COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.
That’s led to an abrupt change of leadership at the residential, nursing and outpatient facility for veterans run by the state of Massachusetts.
News of the outbreak has shocked local officials, and appears to have caught state officials off guard, as well.
Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse said he'd been aware of a single case of COVID-19 at the Soldiers’ Home, but it wasn't until Friday that his local board of health told him that number had kept growing.
"And then on Saturday morning, I received an anonymous communication from employees at the Soldiers' home suggesting that the situation was worsening," Morse said.
Morse said he told his health office to look into it, but they got no calls back. So he called the Soldiers' Home superintendent.
"And that's when I first learned about the extent of the spread of the virus at the facility," Morse said in an interview Monday night.
What’s now known is five residents who died tested positive for COVID-19. Another five people died whose tests are pending, and for one more death the state lists the status as unknown.
Plus, 11 more residents have tested positive — so far.
Morse said he kept going up the political food chain — to the head of the state Department of Veterans Affairs, then Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito, who told him she would get back to him soon.
"And within about 30 minutes, I got a call on my cellphone from Secretary [of Health and Human Services] Mary Lou Sudders [Sunday] night, and let her know about the conversations I had," Morse said. "And it became clear in our conversation that she wasn't aware of the number of deaths."
A spokesperson for Sudders could not immediately be reached Monday night to comment on Morse's description of the conversation.
Sudders, according to Morse, said she'd be "taking immediate action" and would send a response team to the Soldiers' Home on Monday morning.
"To think that the governor, the secretary and administration didn't know what was going on as a state run facility, it's disconcerting," said state Rep. Aaron Vega of Holyoke, who said — like Morse — he heard a rumor about what was happening from a staff member at the home.
The state said five workers have now tested positive for COVID-19.
"Obviously, our hearts are with the families that lost loved ones up there, men and women that served our country," Vega said. "But I think more concerning that public health situation is that staff who've been going in and out of that building for a couple weeks may have also been carrying the virus or are now sick with the virus. So that is definitely a concern."
The Holyoke Soldiers' Home is far from the only nursing facility to see a coronavirus outbreak in recent weeks.
And in perhaps the most glaring example of how dangerous the virus can be to the elderly, more than 30 deaths are connected to a nursing home in Washington state.
Local leaders in western Massachusetts are hopeful health officials have acted fast enough to get the situation under control, but they want answers.
"This is something that I take personal, and I want to know what the hell happened to them up there," said state Rep. John Velis of Westfield, himself a major in the Army Reserve and a vice chair of the legislature’s veterans affairs committee.
Velis said he only heard about all this Monday, in a vague email from the state veterans department.
"At this point, it's not who's wrong, it's what's wrong," he said. "And the fact is, 11 veterans lost their lives up there and I want to know why."
So does Steven Connor. He's the veterans agent for Northampton and a handful of other Hampshire County towns. He said he's helped about 20 veterans get a spot in the Soldiers' Home.
"As a matter of fact, my brother, I helped get into the Soldiers' Home. He passed away there," Connor said. "He was in hospice, and they were so wonderful to him there."
It's the "gem" of the state, Connor calls it. But he also said it's had problems: not enough staff, not enough money — which led to a turnover in leadership about four years ago.
Connor said that in recent days, he and other veterans agents in western Massachusetts have heard rumors about the Soldiers’ Home — and were getting calls from families. Now that the extent of the outbreak is better known, he expects a lot more calls.
"Yeah, because we're the ones responsible for getting the veteran in there — or not responsible, but we're there to help have that happen," he said. "And so it weighs heavy on us when things go bad."
In response to the outbreak, the state has put the superintendent of the Soldiers' Home, Bennett Walsh, on administrative leave, and replaced him with the head of the nearby state long-term care hospital.
Also coming in to help expedite testing of the veterans: members of the National Guard.
The U.S. Senate passed legislation on Tuesday night that will expand benefits for veterans exposed to burn pits and toxins while serving, ending an impasse initiated by Republicans that delayed passage of the bill for almost a week.