The superintendent and former medical director of the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home face criminal charges in connection with a Covid-19 outbreak at the veteran’s home earlier this year, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey said Friday.
The nursing home for veterans in Massachusetts suffered a deadly Covid-19 outbreak in March and April. According to staff and union accounts shared with CNN, the home dealt with systemic issues like short staffing for years.
On Thursday, a grand jury indicted Superintendent Bennett Walsh, 50, and former medical director David Clinton, 71, “for causing or permitting serious bodily injury or neglect of an elder during the Covid-19 outbreak,” Healey said.
They are each facing 10 counts: five counts of criminal neglect and five counts of serious bodily injury.
CNN has reached out to Walsh’s attorney for comment. It is not clear whether Clinton has legal representation.
“This was an outbreak in the home that we know claimed at least 76 lives. The lives of veterans who served our country bravely, and with honor,” Healey said. “They risked their lives from the beaches of Normandy to some, the jungles of Vietnam, and to know that they died under the most horrific circumstances, is truly shocking.”
Walsh’s attorney, William Bennett, said in a statement to CNN affiliate WCVB that his client “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.”
“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,” Bennett said.
Two employees of the home previously told CNN they felt it was woefully unprepared for a coronavirus outbreak, in part due to long-standing systemic issues like short staffing.
The charges are related to five asymptomatic veterans who were moved during a consolidation of two dementia units into one. Of the five veterans, three contracted Covid-19, one died, and two did not contract Covid-19, Healey said.
Healey said her office is alleging that Walsh and Clinton were responsible for the decision on March 27 to consolidate the dementia units. The consolidation meant that 42 “symptomatic and Covid-positive residents were placed within feet of asymptomatic residents” in a single unit that usually accommodates only 25 beds, she said.
Part of the consolidation included placing six or seven veterans in rooms meant to hold four people as well as placing nine beds in a dining room, Healey said. Some of those residents in the dining room were already displaying symptoms of Covid-19 while other were not, she said.
“It never should have happened from an infection control standpoint,” Healey said, adding that the decision put asymptomatic veterans at a greater risk of contracting Covid-19 and at a higher risk of death.
Walsh and Clinton will be arraigned in Hampden Superior Court at a later date, Healey said.
Healey said she spoke to some of the family members of those affected in a Zoom meeting to let them know about the charges and to offer her condolences.
Some family members who previously spoke to CNN said they are determined to rectify issues at the home that officials began raising a decade ago.
Nursing homes across the country saw similar horrors during the height of coronavirus. In April, a tip led police to find 17 bodies in a nursing home in New Jersey. In another case, 60 bodies were found in trucks outside a New York funeral home. And a nursing home in Washington became the epicenter of that state’s outbreak.
Healey said she believes this is the first criminal case in the US involving nursing homes during the pandemic.