HOLYOKE — When a new clinical team came into the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke on March 30 after hearing at least eight residents had died of COVID-19 in less than a week, they found the coronavirus had already spread throughout the building.
In addition, many staff had called in sick with the disease and units had been combined, creating a perfect storm to spread the virus even further among the residents, who are mostly elderly and infirm and vulnerable to the disease.
As of Thursday, at least 44 veterans have died and another 86 are infected. A total of 46 veterans now test negative for coronavirus, said Val Liptak, a registered nurse and CEO of Western Massachusetts Hospital in Westfield, who has taken over as the superintendent.
Liptak and others shared details of the response Thursday during a meeting of the Soldiers’ Home board of trustees. The meeting, trustees’ first since the crisis began, was conducted by telephone.
After hearing that so many people had died of the virus from union officials and Mayor Alex B. Morse on March 29, officials for the state Executive Office of Health and Human Services sent a team to evaluate the problems the next day. By late morning they had placed Superintendent Bennett Walsh on paid administrative leave and asked Liptak to take over.
The state also formed a clinical command team, headed by Lisa Colombo, a registered nurse the executive vice chancellor for Commonwealth Medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester. The included a variety of experts in areas such as infection control, logistics, finance and operations. The Massachusetts National Guard also deployed 160 members who had medical, operations and logistics backgrounds to assist, said Daniel Tsai, deputy secretary for Health and Human Services.
“There were COVID patients throughout the home,” Colombo said, describing what officials found when they arrived March 30.
Many residents were infected in one unit that she called “very hot” because of the number of people suffering from COVID-19. The majority of remaining units had veterans who had tested positive or showed symptoms of the disease, and there were two units where residents were not presumed to be infected but had been exposed to the virus, Colombo said.
“The home has 10 inpatient units, and because there had been a significant number of people out of work they were down to 40 people in a staff that was already small,” Colombo said. “They had consolidated it down to seven units and that resulted in overcrowding.”
The first thing the clinical command team did is have all staff and residents tested for COVID-19 and started moving residents to different units to try to prevent more people from being infected. Those who were confirmed positive were separated from those who tested negative. Residents who tested negative but were known to have contact with anyone who was positive were also separated, Liptak said.
“Residents who are negative are continually tested and moved if they test positive,” Liptak said. “Unfortunately we are seeing new patients arrive and sadly more deaths.”
By the end of the week officials also contacted the head of Holyoke Medical Center, who offered his assistance. In less than a day, staff prepared a unit for 44 residents who were believed to be negative and not directly exposed to the virus. Fifteen of those residents have since tested positive and three have died, she said.
Tsai said he especially appreciates how quickly Holyoke Medical Center staff reacted, saying they started preparing the unit within 90 minutes after he called, and praised the ongoing care they have provided to those veterans.
“The primary focus is to stabilize the home and patient and staff safety,” he said.
Staff-to-resident ratios now meet national standards, all staff have received extra education on infection control and additional housecleaning staff has been hired, Liptak said.
Major changes have been made in the home including closing communal spaces, changing food service, adding treatment carts and even increasing the number of trash cans. Officials have also cleaned out one area of the home to prepare for the return of some veterans now in the hospital, she said.
Multiple social workers and caseworkers have been added through different agencies to assist in helping the veterans contact families and ensure the residents and families receive services they need, she said.
“We are still managing through this crisis and we are not yet in the clear,” Liptak said.
The seven trustees asked questions about staffing and long-term plans for the home.
“We want to thank you for your valiant efforts to lead us through this difficult hour,” said Kevin Jourdain, chairman of the board.
Trustees also asked about the well-being of the staff, 81 of whom have tested positive and many of whom have to deal with the day-to-day impact of the pandemic.
Colombo said the clinical team is following federal protocols for making sure they are not ill when they come to work and that infected employees have fully recovered before they return to work.
“The emotional health of the staff have been a primary focus for us. You can imagine how difficult this has been for them,” she said. “We go and talk to staff, they have a very deep and ongoing connection with the residents.”
The trustees did not discuss the employment status of Walsh. They were originally scheduled to meet on Saturday and hold a hearing in closed session, presumably to discuss firing him.
That meeting was canceled after a Hampden Superior Court judge granted a temporary restraining order after Walsh’s lawyer and uncle, former Hampden District Attorney William Bennett, filed a complaint for injunctive relief.