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Mass. Governor Launches Investigation Into Soldiers' Home COVID-19 Outbreak

A cleaning crew is suited up with protective gear to enter the Soldiers' Home in Holyoke, Massachusetts.
Jesse Costa
A cleaning crew is suited up with protective gear to enter the Soldiers' Home in Holyoke, Massachusetts.

Updated at 9:00 p.m. 

Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker said Wednesday his office is launching an independent investigation into the COVID-19 outbreak at the Holyoke Soldiers' Home.

At least six of the 15 recently deceased veterans tested positive for the new coronavirus, as of Wednesday. Six others had cases pending test results. Two have tested negative, and a final case was listed as "unknown." Eleven living residents of the facility and seven staff members tested positive for COVID-19.

Test samples for all residents have been collected, the state said Wednesday, with results due within 24 hours. All employees are also being tested.

Mark J. Pearlstein, a former federal prosecutor in Boston, has been appointed to lead the inquiry. He is a partner at a Boston law firm, focusing on several areas — including defense of white-collar crimes as well as facilitating internal investigations.

When reached Wednesday for comment via email, Pearlstein said he didn't think it was appropriate for him to comment on a pending investigation.

Several area local officials have said they didn't know about the extent of the outbreak at the Soldiers' Home — a state-run residential facility for veterans — until the last few days.

Massachusetts officials announced several changes at the Soldiers' Home on Monday. Its superintendent, Bennett Walsh, was placed on administrative leave, and a new leadership team was brought in. All residents and employees are to be tested, and the National Guard has been brought in for support.

Officials from two labor unions representing workers at the Holyoke facility said they tried to convince Walsh to make more personal protective gear available to staff working directly with residents.

"When he basically said he was viewing this more as a marathon, and needed to sustain them over a period of time, we explained that to flatten the curve, you really need to protect your caregivers and your patients now," said Andrea Fox, a registered nurse and associate director of labor with the Massachusetts Nurses Association.

Baker addressed the situation at a press conference Tuesday, saying the first goal is to stabilize the situation, then work to "get to the bottom of what happened and when," Baker said, pausing. "And by who."

Walsh, the superintendent, began pushing back on Wednesday, releasing a statement to media outlets.

Walsh said he looks forward to participating in the investigation, and said he provided regular updates to state officials about the situation.

“At no time did I, or anyone on my staff, hide, conceal or mislead anyone regarding the tragic impact of the virus and it would be outrageous for anyone to even think of doing such a thing,” Walsh said.

NEPR's Sam Hudzik and Heather Brandon contributed to this report.

Correction: due to a production error, an earlier version of this report misstated the number of Soldiers' Home staff that had been tested for COVID-19.

Copyright 2020 New England Public Media

Adam is based at New England Public Radio’'s Berkshire County news bureau in Pittsfield, where he has been since August, 2015. He joined NEPR as a freelance reporter and fill-in operations assistant during the summer of 2011. For more than 15 years, Adam has had a number stops throughout his broadcast career, including as a news reporter and anchor, sports host and play-by-play announcer as well as a producer and technician.

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