A Massachusetts home where nearly 80 aging veterans sicked with the coronavirus have died was denied emergency aid as leadership and staff frantically worked to protect the residents, an attorney for the ousted superintendent said Thursday.
The attorney said state officials initially refused in March to send National Guard aid even as the home was dealing with dire staffing shortages. The lawyer for former Holyoke Soldiers’ Home Superintendent Bennett Walsh called him a “good and honorable man” who “would never do anything intentional to harm the vets.”
“When they reached out for assistance from Boston, the answer was no,” attorney William Bennett told reporters.
Bennett's comments come a month after a scathing independent report from former federal prosecutor Mark Pearlstein said “baffling” errors made by Walsh and his team likely contributed to the high death toll at the home. Investigators said Walsh was not qualified to run a long-term care facility and pinned many problems on the leadership's decision to combine two locked dementia units, both of which already housed some residents with the virus.
More than 40 veterans were packed into a space designed to hold 25, investigators said. One staffer who helped move the dementia patients told investigators she felt like she was “walking (the veterans) to their death.” A nurse said the packed dementia unit looked “like a battlefield tent where the cots are all next to each other," according to the report.
Bennett disputed investigator's characterization that the decision to the combine the units was a “catastrophe." He called it “perhaps the best decision that could be made under the circumstances."
Staff began calling out as news of the virus there spread and there weren't enough workers to to cover the two units, he said. Furthermore, every veteran was already sharing a room with at least one person who was already infected, he said.
"The exposure to the virus was already there and it was going to be there whether they combined it or not," Bennett said.
A spokesperson for the Executive Office of Health and Human Services said in an email that “Walsh has been terminated and the independent report by former federal prosecutor Mark Pearlstein speaks for itself."
Walsh was placed on administrative leave March 30 and the CEO of Western Massachusetts Hospital, Val Liptak, took over operations. Since March 1, 76 veterans who contracted COVID-19 at the home have died, officials said.
Bennett acknowledged that Walsh made “mistakes” but said all of his actions were aimed at protecting the veterans. He accused Republican Gov. Charlie Baker's administration of creating a “toxic atmosphere” against Walsh and falsely accusing him of trying to covering up the virus crisis at the home.
“This attack on his name and his character, this accusation that he was intentionally concealing information about the health and welfare of men and women who served our country was poison,” Bennett said.
Last week, the family of a Korean War veteran who died during a coronavirus outbreak at the home filed a $176 million federal lawsuit Friday against Walsh, former Massachusetts Department of Veterans’ Services Secretary Francisco Urena and three other former officials.
Urena was asked to resign last month ahead of the release of the investigative findings.