Majority of veterans who died at Massachusetts health care facility had coronavirus

The facility has been battling dozens of COVID-19 cases.

April 3, 2020, 3:41 PM

The number of deaths at a Massachusetts health care facility for veterans has continued to rise amid the novel coronavirus crisis, with at least 21 residents reported dead as of Friday afternoon, state officials said.

Fifteen of those veterans tested positive for COVID-19, according to Massachusetts Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders. The results for three residents were pending, while two tested negative and one person's COVID-19 status was unknown.

Through Thursday, there had been 18 deaths at the facility.

The Soldier's Home, a veteran's center and hospital in the city of Holyoke, has been battling a growing number of coronavirus cases and allegations that multiple residents died without the government being informed.

Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse said that he was alerted to "the gravity of the situation" last Saturday, when people associated with the home reached out to his office anonymously.

Morse said he then contacted the Board of Health, but he did not hear back by Saturday and decided to call the home's superintendent himself on Sunday.

"I was shocked on the phone call when the superintendent let me know that there had been eight deaths between Wednesday and Sunday 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 on Tuesday.

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

At least 59 veteran residents have tested positive and 160 have tested negative as of Friday, according to Sudders. On Thursday, 23 residents had tested positive in addition to seven staffers. Testing is ongoing.

"This is a critical health situation for our veterans, and the commonwealth will continue to make all resources available to the leadership of the Holyoke and Chelsea Soldiers’ Homes to contain the spread of the virus," an Office of Health and Human Services spokesperson said in a statement.

Quarantine zones have been established, and the National Guard has been called in to assist with staffing and help conduct additional testing.

Morse said Wednesday the situation was "likely going to get worse before it gets better."

"Every decision needs to be based on, How do we save as many lives as possible? How do we stop the spread of this virus?" Morse said in a Facebook live speech.

The Soldier's Home Superintendent Bennett Walsh has been placed on paid administrative leave.

Walsh did not respond to request for comment from ABC News.

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 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.

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker on Wednesday called for an investigation into the deaths.

"We will get to the bottom of what happened," the governor said.

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ABC News' Arielle Mitropoulos contributed to this report.

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