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Former Holyoke Soldiers' Home Superintendent, Medical Director Charged In Coronavirus Deaths

HOLYOKE (CBS/AP) -- The former superintendent of the Holyoke Soldiers' Home, Bennett Walsh, and its former medical director David Clinton have been indicted on multiple charges related the coronavirus deaths of veterans at the facility, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey announced Friday. The state-run facility had one of the deadliest outbreaks at a long-term care facility in the country with 76 residents dying from COVID-19 and dozens of other residents and staffers sickened.

Walsh and Clinton were indicted by a grand jury, Healey told reporters. Each is charged with 10 counts — five counts of criminal neglect and five counts of serious bodily injury that could result in multi-year prison sentences if convicted.

"It's truly heartbreaking to think about how residents and staff suffered at this facility," Healey said. "Walsh and Clinton were responsible for the decision to combine 42 veterans, some COVID positive and others not even showing any symptoms of COVID, into a single unit that usually accommodates 25."

The charges are based on the decision to move five asymptomatic veterans into the dining room of a consolidated unit, "a decision that increased their risk of exposure and the risk of harm, and death," Healey said. Three of those veterans contracted coronavirus, and one of those three died. The other two did not get coronavirus.

"This never should have happened. It never should have happened from an infection controls standpoint," Healey said.

Healey said this is believed to be the first criminal case in the United States brought against nursing home officials during the pandemic.

The first veteran tested positive March 17. Even though he had shown symptoms for weeks, staff "did nothing to isolate" him until his test came back positive, allowing him to remain with three roommates, wander the unit and spend time in a common room, investigators found.

When a social worker raised concerns about combining the two dementia units, the chief nursing officer said "it didn't matter because (the veterans) were all exposed anyway and there was not enough staff to cover both units," investigators said. One staffer who helped move the dementia patients told investigators she felt like she was "walking (the veterans) to their death." A nurse said the packed dementia unit looked "like a battlefield tent where the cots are all next to each other."

As the virus took hold, leadership shifted from trying to prevent its spread, "to preparing for the deaths of scores of residents," the report said. On the day the veterans were moved, more than a dozen additional body bags were sent to the combined dementia unit, investigators said. The next day, a refrigerated truck to hold bodies that wouldn't fit in the home's morgue arrived, the report said.

An attorney for Walsh defended the former superintendent's actions.

"At all times, Mr. Walsh relied on the medical professionals to do what was best for the veterans given the tragic circumstances of a virus in a home with veterans in close quarters, severe staffing shortages, and the lack of outside help from state officials," they said in a statement. "The Attorney General should not be scapegoating Mr. Walsh, who was on the front lines trying his best to do whatever he could to help the Veterans of the Holyoke Soldiers Home, including asking for help from state officials and the National Guard, which arrived much too late."

Earlier this week a Hampden Superior Court judge invalidated the firing of Walsh by Gov. Charlie Baker's administration.

Walsh was fired in June after investigators released a report pointing to "utterly baffling" decisions made by the superintendent and his leadership team that helped the disease run rampant at the home. The independent investigators said that Walsh was not qualified to run a long-term care facility.

Walsh's lawyer argued that only the home's board of trustees can hire and fire the superintendent. Walsh has defended his actions and accused the Baker administration of denying the home emergency aid as staff worked to protect the residents from the virus.

Healey spoke to families of the victims on Friday morning, saying she wanted to express how sorry she was that this happened.

"While this criminal indictment cannot bring back their loved ones, I do hope, sincerely, that it provides those affected by this tragedy some solace that we are doing everything we can to hold accountable the individuals we believe are responsible," she said.

Walsh and Clinton will be arraigned in court at a later date.

(© Copyright 2020 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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