A longtime nursing aide at the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke, where 27 veterans have died since an outbreak of coronavirus began in March, told Jim Braude on WGBH News’ Greater Boston on Wednesday that she doesn’t feel safe returning to work.
“They don’t have any of ours’ or our vets’ safety as a top priority right now,” said Erin Saykin, who has worked at the state-funded veterans’ care facility for 16 years.
Saykin is one of more than 60 staffers there to test positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. At least 65 residents have also tested positive, in addition to the 27 deaths — 18 of which were confirmed coronavirus cases.
She said the outbreak got as bad as it did because the Soldiers’ Home administration had staffers unprepared to handle the crisis, citing a lack of protective equipment.
“They had us underprepared to take care of the veterans with proper [personal protective equipment]. We didn’t have no N-95 masks at all, to protect ourselves or proper gowns,” she said.
Saykin also cited poor isolation procedures at the facility, which she believes led to her infection.
“I was working … on the unit where they had the patient that was tested positive for the COVID-19,” she said. “They moved his roommates out of his room, but they didn’t take him off the floor to be in an appropriate isolated room.”
The state attorney general’s office opened an independent investigation into the facility’s handling of the outbreak Wednesday. And Gov. Charlie Baker, who launched a separate investigation last week, said that his office was quick to take action as soon as they became aware of the outbreak.
“Since we were notified … we have moved quickly to install a new management team at the site … tested all residents, and have established, with the help of Holyoke Medical Center, a COVID facility for many of the residents who tested positive,” the governor said in a press conference Wednesday.
But Saykin said the home’s mishandling of this pandemic is just the latest in a long line of problems.
“We’ve been complaining for better staffing and better treatment of staffing since probably as early as February of 2015,” she said.
Saykin said that she and her colleagues met with the facility’s administrators about staffing levels several times and, eventually, with the state’s Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders, but ultimately, nothing changed.
“It actually ended up getting worse,” she said. “We needed more staff, that was what was hurting us. And they kept letting supervisors continue to belittle and bully and intimidate people. We’ve lost a lot of people in the last five years because of these tactics.”
Saykin has been home since late March, recovering from the disease, which she says hit her hard.
“It took me out,” she said. “I just woke in the middle of the night like an elephant sat on my chest. I couldn’t breathe.”
Still, Saykin said despite everything, she is eager to get back to work and her patients.
“I miss my guys,” she said. “I couldn’t be there … for my vets that have passed away. … It’s very upsetting.”