Holyoke Soldiers’ Home union workers want 4 more administrators put on leave

HOLYOKE, MASS. (WHDH) - Union leaders representing more than 450 workers at Holyoke Soldiers’ Home are asking the state to put four additional administrators on leave for their role in what the union is calling the “preventable spread of COVID-19, leading to the deaths of our veterans.“

The facility is under multiple investigations after 27 recent deaths, 18 of which have been linked to coronavirus.

Gov. Charlie Baker hired a former prosecutor to investigate the state-funded veterans’ facility, and Attorney General Maura Healey has launched an investigation.

Holyoke Soldiers’ Home Superintendent Bennett Walsh was placed on administrative leave at the end of March. He released a statement Thursday, saying in part, “state officials knew that Holyoke needed as much help as possible. No one was kept in the dark,” in response to state leaders saying they didn’t have all the information before getting involved on March 28th.

SEIU Local 888’s class action complaint claims Walsh, along with four administrators “and others in Holyoke,” “have played a part in endangering the health and safety of everyone in the building, and their families.”

Around 68 staff members and 65 veterans had tested positive for COVID 19 as of Thursday afternoon. Updated numbers were requested.

HOLYOKE STAFF RECOVERING AT HOME: 

7 Investigates spoke to three certified nursing assistants from Holyoke, who are now at home recovering from COVID-19. Even in recovery, they say they need to speak about the poor decision-making they believe led to a COVID-19 outbreak at the facility.

“The symptoms were really bad, really high fever, chills, no smells, no taste, very. very weak,” says Carmen Rivera, a CNA who has been with the soldiers home for 24 years.

Rivera says she was hospitalized for a week after coming down with coronavirus and infecting her family. The virus spread to her husband, daughter, son-in-law, their triplets, and other family members.

“Four hospitalized, the whole family. Very devastating, very scary,” says Rivera, who added that she “thought she was going to die” during the worst of the disease.

She says she got sick because she and other co-workers did not get proper protective equipment, like N95 masks, until after patients and staff had begun showing symptoms.

“We weren’t given any gear, we were given a hard time to bring our own stuff,” says Rivera. “I’d bring my own mask, and I’d get lectured about it.”

Joseph Ramirez is the vice president for SEIU Local 888. He’s also a CNA at Holyoke and is at home recovering from COVID-19 as well.

“What I’ve gone through in the last two weeks has been torture,” he said.

WHAT COULD HAVE GONE WRONG 

Ramirez says he believes a lack of action on behalf of management is to blame for the outbreak. The CNA says the first veteran who tested positive wasn’t properly isolated and was allowed to walk the halls.

“To me, isolation is you take that person off the unit and you take them to a completely closed off unit,” he said, adding that healthy veterans were just across the hall from the room with the positive case.

Then Ramirez says specialized units were combined. There were sometimes six veterans put into a single room, when there should have been far fewer.

“That’s positive cases, cases waiting for results and healthy veterans and they combined them all in one unit, and their response was, this is what we were told to do because we have no staffing,” Ramirez said.

But Walsh disputes that, saying in a statement, “the first veteran who showed symptoms resided in North 1. The first veteran who died with a confirmed positive resided in North 2. These veterans were on different floors and physically separated from each other. It was clear that the virus was not confined to one area but was infecting veterans throughout the facility and our medical resources were stretched to the limit.”

He also said in regards to the specialized units combining that, “The staff shortage was so acute, and the number of Veterans with known or suspected Covid-19 so large, that the medical staff was forced to close some areas and place these men in the same unit. This action to ‘cohort’ the veterans was reviewed with the Department of Public Health on Wednesday March 25 and accomplished on Friday March 27.”

STAFFING SHORTAGES “NO SURPRISE”

CNA Erin Saykin has worked at Holyoke for 16 years and says staff shortages were not a secret or a surprise, even before the pandemic.

“We lost a lot of people in the last five years, especially in the last one or two years,” says Saykin, who is also home recovering from COVID-19.

“The biggest one I am still dealing with is shortness of breath, and difficulty breathing,” she said. “There’s been days I haven’t been able to sit up for too long because my whole body is so weak.”

7 Investigates found Suffolk University was asked by the Executive Office of Health and Human Services in January of 2019 to “assess” Holyoke because of high overtime expenses. The union says the facility was mandating overtime because they didn’t have enough staff to fill shifts.

Talking to dozens of healthcare workers during their assessment, Suffolk University staff were quoted saying “direct care staff feel that there is not enough staff to provide care for veterans at SHH while management feel that staffing is sufficient,” adding “they noted that at times they struggled to find someone on the unit to assist with lifts to help veterans out of bed.”

They said the facility “faces high turnover rates and low retention.”

Saykin says it didn’t have to be this bad, and the situation breaks her heart.

“The least we can do is give them the proper care they deserve, with true honor, dignity, and respect.”

UNION STATEMENT

When it comes to the state investigations, Cory Bombredi, of SEIU Local 888 said, “our members are thankful to hear Maura Healey has opened her own investigation into what has been allowed to happen.  At this point over 65 of our members have agreed to be interviewed for the independent investigator, we are waiting to hear from the AG’s office as well.”

FULL STATEMENT FROM SUPERINTENDENT BENNETT WALSH: 

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