Within the last month, at least 13 residents at the Soldiers' Home in Holyoke have died. At least six of those deaths were associated with COVID-19, and five test results are still pending. Now, state and Holyoke officials are investigating what happened and why they were not alerted about the deaths sooner. WGBH Morning Edition host Joe Mathieu spoke with Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse for an update on Soldiers' Home, and how his city is responding to the pandemic. The transcript below has been edited for clarity.
Joe Mathieu: Thanks for being here on a tough day. We should note the director of the home has been removed. Mayor, what did you think when you first read that tip?
Mayor Alex Morse: Yeah, I got the tip on Saturday morning describing some pretty horrendous conditions for staff and residents there. We had our Board of Health reach out to their staff on Saturday, trying to get a sense of what was happening without any response. And so on Sunday, I reached out personally to the superintendent, was able to get in touch and it was in that conversation that he informed me that eight veterans had died between Wednesday and our Sunday night conversation. Me and my team were just incredibly shocked, number one that it happened, and number two, that our Board of Health, our office and the state, I came to find out, none of us were officially notified per the guidelines we are supposed to be. And the response to our questioning around lack of transparency, communication and how could this have happened was just met with, "Well, all of the folks who passed away had underlying health conditions." That was some sort of excuse for their deaths. So I got off that call and as I've said, I reached out to the Baker administration [and] I reached out to the lieutenant governor, and within a half an hour I was on the phone with Marylou Sudders, the secretary of Health and Human Services, who have since taken the actions over the last couple of days.
Mathieu: Have you been satisfied with the reaction from the governor's office?
Morse: To some extent, I think it's a good start. I do think the actions taken over the last couple of days will no doubt save lives in the next few days, in the next few weeks. This virus is horrific and deadly. I think this is a really sad reminder of that. And things are likely to get worse before they get better not just there, but all across our country, so we do need to take it seriously. They have activated the National Guard to test all of the employees and staff members and residents. They did say that yesterday. I've still been hearing from some employees via email and phone that that is not the case yet, and so we're gonna continue to monitor this. I think the point is that local government is so important, right? Like this isn't a city facility, it's a state facility. So we don't oversee it. But at the same time, when I'm hearing from residents and employees about these conditions, this is still a soldier's home in my city, and it's important that we we know what's going on there and we demand accountability from the state that funds it and operates it. I think our veterans more than anyone, deserve the best care possible.
Mathieu: What more could be done, Mayor? Is it the testing you're specifically talking about?
Morse: Well, the testing is important. But within the facility, we need to make sure that residents who test positive are given proper care and are isolated sufficiently from those patients that do not have the virus to protect everyone there, including employees. There are five employees now who have tested positive. Employees at this point are scared to go to work. They don't have adequate personal protective equipment. So all of those things need to be improved as soon as possible. In many ways, cities and towns — I know we do — we feel like we're on our own, to some extent. We've been identifying excess space for our health care institutions. These are very difficult times. As mayor, I never thought I'd have conversations about contacting our local ice skating rink for the potential of an overflow morgue or using our high school and middle school gymnasiums for overflow space for hospitals. And so we've offered assistance to the state. If patients and residents are getting moved around to make more room for quarantine space in The Soldiers' Home, then those that don't have the virus need to either go somewhere or we need to move the folks that have coronavirus somewhere else as well to protect as many people as possible because it's all about saving lives. And so there needs to be all hands on deck. We need to think big and we need to tackle this.
Mathieu: Well, you just, I guess, answered my next question, which would have been, How will additional positive cases be handled? It sounds like you don't necessarily know.
Morse: At this point, I don't know the specifics. I don't run the facility. I'm hoping to connect with the new acting superintendent, Val Liptak, today to get a status update on testing: has everyone been tested at this point? And on Sunday night, I was told there were eight deaths. On Monday, it was 11 and yesterday it was 13. So we're going to continue to get updates. And as I said before, we're getting a lot of outreach from family members there, some of which found out about this only from the news, which is just absolutely terrible. And yesterday, hearing from family members that are literally trying to call and get the status of their mother, father, grandfather or uncle, and weren't getting any information [or] calls back. I know the state set up a dedicated phone line for those families, but they need to continue to do a better job communicating with those people that have loved ones at the facility.
Mathieu: Well, I was going to ask you about how they can get information. We have actually spoken with some family members who are struggling to get the status check on their loved ones. They should then reach out to the state, not the city. Is that right?
Morse: That is right. There is a dedicated family line that's staffed by social workers from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturdays, and that's 413-552-4764. That's a phone line that was just set up yesterday for family members who have loved ones at The Soldiers' Home.
Mathieu: Mayor, you mentioned the skating rink. I suspect that's something that mayors around the state are hearing about, but it's the first time I've heard it mentioned. Can you fathom a skating rink being used as an overflow morgue in Holyoke?
Morse: This is how they're being used in other countries. And so if we're expecting both the governor and even the president now to acknowledge the peak of this has not yet arrived — so we're looking at the next two to three weeks that will fully exhaust our health care institutions or hospitals — we haven't seen the worst of this yet. Holyoke Medical Center only has a certain number of spaces for those that have passed away, and so we do need to identify other potential facilities for that. It's not a sure thing at this point, but these are things we're going to need five, seven, 14 days from now. We can't make the decision that same day; we need to be prepared for it now so we're ready to push a button and open these facilities. We've been trying to do our best to think two or three weeks ahead of where we need to be. Sometimes it's like we're rowing the boat and thinking ahead, and those that have more levers and resources at the state and federal level are still two weeks behind. So I think that's been one of the challenges in working with the state and federal government. We realize the gravity of the situation on the ground, but sometimes it seems like we're still trying to convince those folks who do have more resources and ability to support our efforts, we find ourselves having to convince them of the gravity of the situation.