Employees say veteran at Soldier's Home infected others after leadership failures

The employees detailed what they said were a long list of failings.

April 9, 2020, 5:00 AM

At least two employees at a veteran's home in Massachusetts, where an outbreak of the novel coronavirus has left multiple residents dead, are continuing to work despite testing positive themselves out of fear for their job and at the recommendation of management, two other staff members told ABC News.

The organizer of a union representing the employees confirmed to ABC News that two employees who tested positive were still working inside the facility.

The two recovering employees and union representative said it was just another way in which the Soldier's Home, a health care facility for veterans located in Holyoke, just north of Springfield, Massachusetts, has failed to protect both its residents and staff.

"They already failed us from the beginning, not being protected," Carmen Rivera, a certified nursing assistant from the home who tested positive for coronavirus and has been out of work sick since March 19, told ABC News. Rivera said she was hospitalized for a week at one point, but has since been on the mend and is in touch with her colleagues who are still working.

Joe Ramirez, also a certified nursing assistant who tested positive and has been out sick, said the two employees who are still working despite their test results are not the type "to stand up because they're afraid of losing their job. They're afraid of retaliation."

Ramirez said that they are asymptomatic, but they're still scared.

"They're not sure if they're passing it on to somebody or not," he said.

Cory Bombredi, the Local 888 union organizer for the home, said the written policy in place was "if you're COVID-19 positive and asymptomatic, you still have to show."

PHOTO: An ambulance and a health care worker with protective equipment arrived at the Holyoke Soldiers' Home, Tuesday morning, March 31, 2020, in Holyoke, Mass.
An ambulance and a health care worker with protective equipment arrived at the Holyoke Soldiers' Home, Tuesday morning, March 31, 2020, in Holyoke, Mass.
Hoang "Leon" Nguyen/The Republican via AP

As of Monday, at least 25 veteran residents at the home had died, according to the state's Office of Health and Human Services. Of those deaths, 18 tested positive for the virus, while three have pending test results, three tested negative and one was unknown, according to the agency.

Emails to the office were not returned Wednesday for updated information or comment about the two staff members. Debra Foley, the communications director for the home, also did not respond to ABC News for comment.

The superintendent, Bennett Walsh, was placed on paid administrative leave on March 30. Employees have accused him of lying about procedures in place to state officials, while Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse said he did not alert state officials of the first eight deaths.

"I was shocked on the phone call when the superintendent let me know that there had been eight deaths between Wednesday [March 25] and Sunday [March 29] without any public notification, without any notification to my office and also just no notification to the state government that oversees the facility in the first place," Morse said in a Facebook Live speech last week.

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker has called for an independent investigation into the home.

Walsh did not return multiple requests for comment via phone, email and text. He did release a statement to MassLive defending his actions, saying he provided regular updates to state officials about the number of residents and staff who were tested and their results after a resident tested positive on March 21.

He also said that all family members were contacted and told that a resident tested positive.

"Our focus then and always was on the veterans and their families," Walsh said in his statement.

PHOTO: A welcome sign is seen outside the Soldier's Home in Holyoke, Mass., March 31, 2020.
A welcome sign is seen outside the Soldier's Home in Holyoke, Mass., March 31, 2020. The director of the center has been placed on leave after several veterans have died and others including staff have been diagnosed with Covid-19.
CJ Gunther/EPA via Shutterstock

However, Rivera and Ramirez said they were not surprised at his behavior and did not believe he had their best interests at heart. Rivera said one example of that is her current paycheck. Her normal net pay is around $1,200, according to pay stubs she shared with ABC News. Yet her paycheck for the week where she was in the hospital amounted to only $518. She had not heard back from human resources despite multiple calls to them as to why her paycheck was lowered.

When the first veteran who was showing symptoms of coronavirus got tested, both employees said they were not given any protective gear to wear and the masks that were onsite were not handed out.

Bombredi said he was shocked to learn this and even more shocked to hear that leadership was saying otherwise.

"They were telling everybody, 'We're following CDC guidelines, everybody's wearing safety equipment.' ... Every one of my workers said they're not doing this. They're lying," he said.

Rivera said when she brought a mask from home to wear, a manager took issue with her wearing it.

"They were saying we didn't need a mask and it was for people that didn't get the flu shot and it was nothing going on and the gentleman that was coughing, they didn't know what was going on," she said. "I had said, 'Isn't that more reason we should be wearing the mask?'"

Both employees also said that when the veteran was awaiting test results, he was not separated from the other veterans in his room.

"He still had roommates in that room. He was exposing those veterans," Ramirez said.

The veteran's test eventually came back positive, according to Rivera and Ramirez. Ramirez said he had learned from other staffers that it was a positive test on the evening of March 20. He said he didn't receive an email from management about the positive test until March 22.

The man's roommates were then moved to other units, however, staff said this proved to be ineffective because those roommates had already been exposed at that point.

"They got moved into other bedrooms where other healthy veterans were. These veterans may be infected and now they're infecting others," Ramirez said.

Ramirez and Bombredi also said that when the veterans were moved around, many were put into rooms only meant to hold four. However with the added residents, some rooms held six, according to Ramirez and Bombredi. Other veterans were moved to the dining room, they said.

Bombredi said staff worried about eventually separating them.

"Unfortunately, part of the worst news is that they never had to separate the unit," he said. "So many died that the rooms are now at the correct amount again."

Bombredi said that the home has been understaffed for years. For him, it was not a matter of if, but when, a dire situation would arise and the safety of residents and staff would be thrown into question.

"I keep hearing from everybody how quickly this developed. For us and our members, this happened in slow motion," he said. "This was always going to happen, and unfortunately it happened with a deadly virus."

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