Holyoke

2 Charged for Handling of Virus Outbreak at Veterans Home

Attorney General Maura Healey is also investigating "a number of other facilities," across the state with high numbers of coronavirus-related deaths

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Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey is pressing criminal charges against two former officials of the Holyoke Soldiers' Home for allegedly making a "deadly decision" that led to the COVID-19 outbreak there that killed dozens of elderly veterans.

Bennett Walsh, the former superintendent, and David Clinton, the former medial director, are facing felony charges related to their March 27 decision to combine 42 veterans -- some positive for the disease and others not showing symptoms -- into a single unit that accommodates 25.

"We have charged these two -- Walsh and Clinton -- because they were the ultimate decision makers," Healey said in a news conference Friday. "They were ultimately responsible for the deadly decision to consolidate these two units."

Healey also said she is investigating "a number of other facilities across the state," with high numbers of coronavirus-related deaths or infection rates.

Healey's office believes this to be the first criminal case in the country brought against people involved in outbreaks at nursing homes.

Both face 10 counts total -- five counts of criminal neglect, which carry up to three years in state prison per count; and five counts of serious bodily injury, which carries up to 10 years per count.

They will be arraigned in Hampden County Superior Court at a later date.

The charges are based on the plight of five residents who were asymptomatic, and then put at "greater risk of harm or death" by Walsh and Clinton's decision to put them in the consolidated unit, Healey said.

"To think about this now, knowing how contagious and deadly this virus is and continues to be, is most disturbing and the alleged details are even worse," Healey said, adding that it ultimately led to "tragic and deadly results."

The attorney general's office began investigating the home in April and ultimately found that, faced with staffing shortages, Walsh and Clinton decided to consolidate two dementia units.

Residents who tested positive for coronavirus or showed symptoms were placed, six per a room, in dorm-like rooms that normally house four veterans. The residents who were thought to be asymptomatic were placed in nine beds in a dining room, "just a few feet apart from each other," according to Healey's office.

Healey is alleging that that several of the residents, categorized as “asymptomatic” by officials, actually did have coronavirus symptoms at the time. They were also mingling with people who tested positive in the next room, regardless of status, Healey alleges.

At least 76 veterans at the home died of the coronavirus dating back to March.

"This never should have happened. It never should have happened from an infection control standpoint," Healey said. "This is a decision that put veterans who are asymptomatic at greater risk of contracting COVID-19 at a higher risk of death."

Healey held a Zoom call with family members ahead of the announcement Friday and her office spoke with over 90 relatives throughout the investigation to better understand "the real faces," behind the indictment.

"It was really heartbreaking to hear from families this morning, who continue to deal with very real pain of this experience and the devastation and the loss," Healey said. "Our bringing criminal charges isn't going to take away that pain. I understand that. It is, however, important that we do it. And I hope it does show them that we value the lives of their loved ones and we'll do everything that we can to seek accountability and justice."

Gov. Charlie Baker announced a series of reforms after an investigation into a coronavirus outbreak that killed dozens at the Soldiers' Home in Holyoke.

Earlier this week, a judge ruled that Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration wrongfully fired former Superintendent Bennett Walsh.

Walsh was fired in June after investigators released a report pointing to “utterly baffling” decisions made by the superintendent and his leadership team that helped the disease run rampant at the home. Independent investigators, commissioned by Baker, said that Walsh was not qualified to run a long-term care facility. Healey agreed with that finding Friday.

"This criminal case clearly demonstrates that he was not qualified to hold this position," Healey said.

Walsh’s lawyer has argued that only the home’s board of trustees can hire and fire the superintendent. Walsh has defended his actions and accused the Baker administration of denying the home emergency aid as staff worked to protect the residents from the virus.

The Holyoke Soldiers Home Family Coalition released a statement on Friday.

"We were briefed on today's charges and will closely follow the progress of the proceedings in court, the statement said. "This is another event that brings up some very difficult memories for all of us, and today's announcement causes each of us to pause and reflect on what happened to our loved ones."

"We now want our state to move forward and do the right thing to ensure this never happens again to any other Veteran."

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