A veteran who lived at the Chelsea Soldiers' Home has died after becoming infected with the coronavirus, and at least one more resident and at least two staff members have tested positive for COVID-19, state officials said Wednesday morning.
The death of a veteran in Chelsea comes as Massachusetts works to stabilize the Holyoke Soldiers' Home, where 13 veterans had died as of Tuesday afternoon amid what appears to be a significant outbreak of the highly-contagious virus. On Wednesday, the governor tapped a former first assistant U.S. attorney to investigate the situation in Holyoke.
A spokesman for the state-run Chelsea Soldiers' Home said the facility is isolating, closely monitoring and tracking daily its COVID-19 cases. As of Tuesday afternoon, four residents had been tested -- one tested positive and has died, another tested positive, one tested negative for COVID-19 and another is awaiting test results, the home said. Five staff members have been tested -- two tested positive, one was negative and two are still waiting for test results.
"We continue to take rapid action to mitigate the impact of the virus on our residents and staff. The Chelsea Soldiers' Home is following to the letter the cleaning and infection control protocols from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Department of Veterans Affairs, and Massachusetts Department of Public Health, and vigilantly cleaning and disinfecting to maintain a clean and safe environment," the spokesman said in a statement. "The Chelsea Soldiers' Home is doing everything in its power to maintain our veteran residents' health during this outbreak, and will continue to monitor and act immediately. The Chelsea Soldiers' Home followed appropriate reporting and protocols for a COVID-19 incident and is working to prioritize veteran residents' health during this outbreak."
In Chelsea, officials are dedicating one ward to patients who have tested positive for COVID-19 and are quarantining all veterans to their own wards to minimize possible exposures. Staff members are wearing masks throughout the facility, as are any veterans who request a mask, the state said. The home is postponing all new admissions, has restricted what take-out food is allowed at the home, is taking daily temperatures of the residents in the long-term care facility, and is doing a deep clean of its kitchen each day.
As of the latest report from the Department of Veterans' Services, the Chelsea Soldiers' Home had 292 residents, including 134 in long-term care. Vietnam-era veterans are the largest population at Chelsea, with 163 Vietnam veterans being treated there, about 56 percent of the home's population. The home also serves 35 veterans of the Korean War and 25 World War II veterans, according to the report. About 60 percent of the home's veterans are at least 70 years old.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs most recently surveyed Chelsea in January 2019 and "noted deficiencies" in its report.
"Chelsea provided a plan of correction for all findings," the Department of Veterans' Affairs wrote in the annual report. "Based upon the responses, all were accepted with the exception of patient room size/number of patients living in one room due to the outdated physical configuration of the nursing home, known as the Quigley Building, which does not meet modern dimensional standards. The VA has granted a provisional certification."
The Holyoke Soldiers' Home was placed under the control of a new leader and a clinical command team Monday after Superintendent Bennett Walsh was put on paid administrative leave.
Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse said Tuesday that Walsh told him Sunday there had been eight veteran deaths between Wednesday and Sunday, and that Walsh did not follow guidelines for reporting issues at the home to the city or state.
Baker said Tuesday afternoon that he, Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito and Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders first learned of the situation in Holyoke Sunday night when they spoke with Morse.
"We will get to the bottom of what happened and when, and by who," the governor said. He said the state's priority right now is to stabilize the Holyoke Soldiers' Home and ensure the residents there are properly cared for. Baker added, "We will figure out what happened and we will deal with that."
On Wednesday, Baker announced that he had chosen an attorney from McDermott, Will & Emery, Mark Pearlstein, to "conduct an independent investigation of the Holyoke Soldiers' Home and the events that led to the recent tragic deaths from COVID-19 within that facility."
The administration said Pearlstein will focus on "the events inside the facility that led to the tragic deaths of veterans" as well as the "management and organizational oversight of the COVID-19 response."
Pearlstein worked a federal prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney's office in Boston in the 1990s, as chief of the Economic Crimes Unit from 1994 to 1996, and as the first assistant U.S. attorney from 1996 until 2000. In that role, the Baker administration said he supervised the Civil and Criminal Divisions of the office.
As a partner at McDermott, Will & Emery, Pearlstein "concentrates his practice on white-collar criminal defense, defense of U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission actions, complex commercial litigation, arbitration and internal investigations," according to the governor's announcement. He holds degrees from the University of Michigan and Harvard Law School.
In a statement Tuesday, Congressman Richard Neal said he was shocked to learn Monday night about the deaths of the Holyoke home residents and noted it's "even more personal to me because I have an uncle who is a full-time resident there."
"Simply put, there must be accountability for what happened in Holyoke," Neal said in a statement.