As COVID-19 continues to spread — and take lives — at the state-run Holyoke Soldiers' Home, more information has emerged on outbreak preparations behind the scenes.
Earlier this week, the board of trustees for the Soldiers' Home released minutes from its March 10 meeting.
Reporter Dusty Christensen of The Daily Hampshire Gazette spoke with NEPR about what the records reveal.
Dusty Christensen, Daily Hampshire Gazette: Some details are still unknown, in terms of the timeline. And some details that have emerged are being disputed by the various parties here.
We know that during this board of trustees meeting, preparations for an outbreak came up. And the superintendent, Bennett Walsh — who is now on paid leave during investigations into the outbreak — he indicated at that meeting that there were no cases of COVID-19 at the time, at least that were known, and that there were some preparations being made — for example, stopping entertainment, volunteers, visitors from entering the facility. We know that took place on March 14.
Walsh also said that the Department of Veterans Services and Executive Office of Health and Human Services had approved the facility's response.
That's interesting to note, because state officials have said they were kept in the dark about the outbreak as it spread. Walsh has denied those claims. And he's said that he kept state officials apprised of the ongoing outbreak, and that on March 27, he was denied a request to have the National Guard come in and help with staffing.
Carrie Healy, NEPR: There were emails reportedly distributed by Bennett Walsh that said if staff were ill with cough, fever or shortness of breath, they were required to go immediately to the Holyoke Medical Center isolation emergency room for testing. Did you find that people may not have been doing that? Was that actually enforced?
That's a good question. I don't know if I have a clear answer to that. I do know that staffers have told us previously that after feeling as though they were exposed to veterans who likely had the coronavirus, or to co-workers, that they were still required to come into work, that they felt they were not given adequate PPE — personal protective equipment — and they were, because of the staffing shortages, floating between units more frequently than they normally do.
But as of yet, I have not heard of anybody who had a fever, a cough or shortness of breath who was continuing to work. We just don't have that information yet.
You also actually detailed the timeline pretty closely in emails about the use of personal protective equipment, specifically those N95 masks. What did you find?
Several CNAs have previously told me that it wasn't until a resident tested positive that they were allowed to wear those N95 masks.
Those CNAs have previously told us that managers kept personal protective equipment under close watch. And that was mirrored in a March 17 email in which Walsh, the superintendent, instructed staff to "be mindful of supplies," saying that administrators were "keeping a watchful eye on all supplies during this time."
It wasn't until a March 28 email we obtained that staff were told [they] should wear an N95 mask. In that email, those employees were also told they should wear that mask for one week; they should keep it in a brown paper bag when they took it off. The email went on to say that that was a protocol being followed at local hospitals.
And we have heard from other local hospitals — from workers in those hospitals — that they are also being required, or were at some point, to wear N95 masks for a week, given shortages. In normal times, those are disposable masks that are thrown away after use.
So where does it leave you, now that you've seen holes from this timeline?
I think some of the information is going to come from investigators. Federal prosecutors are looking into this, as are the state inspector general, the state attorney general. Governor Charlie Baker, has hired a private investigator, and state lawmakers have said they intend to launch their own probe.
But obviously, some other details are going to come from reporters continuing to dig in to some of the information that is still lacking.
It does seem clear from the emails we obtained, these meeting minutes, and our previous interviews with workers in the facility, that some of what perhaps fueled this outbreak was the consolidation of a couple of units in the facility, putting veteran residents in even closer quarters than normal. And normal conditions, I should say, are somewhat cramped. And the reason that consolidation happened was because of staffing shortages.
We see in one email the facility's chief nursing officer acknowledge it had been a "heck of a week" at the facility. and said that HR had been lessening its restrictions for hiring, expediting, onboarding, so that we could "get the hires in here ASAP." That chief nursing officer went on to acknowledge that everyone was "working out of our comfort zone and providing extra hands and minds."