A lot of sad storylines have emerged as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to take its toll. One of the saddest locally is playing out in Holyoke. A facility for veterans called the Soldiers Home has now seen more than a dozen deaths, and six of the dead are confirmed to have had COVID-19. The superintendent of the home, Bennet Walsh, has been placed on leave. Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse spoke with WGBH News' All Things Considered host Arun Rath to discuss the impact of the events. Walsh did not respond to requests for comment. This transcript has been edited for clarity.
Arun Rath: So it had originally been reported that there were 11 deaths in total. Now that number stands at 13. Forgive the grim question, but but do you expect the total to to grow further?
Alex Morse: I mean, to be frank, I would not be surprised if that number continues to grow. And, you know, I would just start out by saying how devastated we are, as a local community, to see this playing out in in the city of Holyoke. We've been working around the clock the last few weeks to keep as many people safe, healthy and alive as humanly possible. And so, we're just incredibly disappointed this state of affairs at the Soldiers Home. And, I do want to thank the Lieutenant Governor and Secretary [Health and Human Services] Mary Lou Sudders for being so responsive to my call for action on Sunday night, immediately after I found out about the facts and the situation at the Soldiers Home.
Rath: Do you have a sense of how it got this bad at the Soldiers Home and how much detail? Are you still waiting to find out?
Morse: We're still waiting for a lot of the details. As the governor committed to this afternoon, they will do a thorough investigation of who and what and when and how. And I think those questions are going to be important to to be answered.
When I had a call with the superintendent of the facility on Sunday night, when he articulated that there had been a death, at the time between Wednesday and our Sunday conversation, I was immediately shocked and surprised that we were not notified, our board health was not notified, and then come to find out that the state respective state agencies were also not notified. And there was no clear sense of urgency in that conversation other than coming back and saying, 'well, these are residents with underlying health conditions' and we know that to be the case. I'm not contesting that. But saying someone has an underlying health condition is not a reason to see an outbreak of this magnitude at a facility that prides itself on being a safe and healthy place for those people that choose to send their loved ones there. And so, upon getting off of that phone call, I immediately reached out to the Baker administration. And then in turn, Secretary Sudders reached out to me directly Sunday night and promised that they would take swift action, which they began to do yesterday morning.
Rath: The superintendent of the Soldier's Home, Bennett Walsh, has been placed on leave. You've accused him of concealing deaths at the facility. Could you explain?
Morse: I did. I did see that headline. And I did say that over the weekend and in our conversation on Sunday, I made it very clear our disappointment at not being notified. That I think it's a combination of lack of transparency, a lack of communication to the public, to the staff and the team and the residents at the facility. To my office and our Board of Health and to the Department of Health and Human Services.
The fact that it took me reaching out personally to the superintendent to be notified that there had been, at that point, eight deaths at a facility is just unacceptable. And the fact that the governor and the lieutenant governor and the secretary of health and human services were also not aware until I reached out on Sunday night, is also unacceptable. And so, yes, I don't oversee the Soldiers Home. Our Board of Health, doesn't oversee it. But these are people that live in my city and it's important for us to do everything we can to stop the spread of this illness and keep as many people alive as possible.
Rath: So going forward. Tell us what you will need to do is as mayor in terms of working with local and state authorities to to contain the outbreak.
Morse: Yes. I mean, we've been promised regular updates at this point from the secretary herself and the new acting superintendent of the facility. They've activated the National Guard to expedite testing of all of the employees there and all of the residents there. They've set up a dedicated phone line for family members who, frankly, have been desperate to get information about their loved ones. And many residents, families found out about the situation from the news, which is just completely heartbreaking on top of everything else, the family they're already dealing with throughout this pandemic.
And I will say, you know, we also let the administration know that we're here to help. I believe for the last several weeks, we've already been doing our part to identify facilities throughout the city, be at school gymnasiums, excess based in long-term care facilities that can be used for overflow hospitalization units and so on and so forth. And so, we stand ready to do our part to help help the state in making sure, again, that we keep we keep people safe and healthy as possible.
Rath: Mayor Morris, I haven't been to your town a lot, but I do have a very vivid memory of Holyoke from just a few years ago. It was actually a military funeral. It was for a Korean War vet whose remains were identified and returned. And even though this was 66 years later, it felt like the whole town turned out for the funeral. I remember you were there as well. Holyoke clearly loves its veterans. Can you tell us how this tragedy has hit your town?
Morse: Yeah, this has been a tough a tough couple of days for the city on many levels. We are a very proud community. We're very proud of the contributions of veterans from Holyoke and afar. We this morning lowered the flag throughout the city to half mast to stand with those veterans that have passed away and to show solidarity with those that are still battling this illness. You know, when you drive through the streets of Holyoke, we have a Hometown Heroes banner program where we celebrate the contributions of the local veterans; those that have passed and those that are still among us. Just to thank them for their contributions.
And so, yeah, this is certainly something that is hitting the community hard, but it's something that impacts not just the residents of Holyoke, but the entire region and the entire state. The focus on this is a facility that has been there for countless families for for decades at this point.