'They sent them literally into a death trap': Families recall horror as Covid-19 ravaged Massachusetts veterans home
Updated 3:59 PM ET, Fri June 26, 2020
(CNN)While serving in the Navy during the Korean War, Robert Blais once jumped overboard to rescue a fellow sailor.
"He gave his life jacket to save a man," his daughter Sheryl Blais said, recounting a favorite story of the man she so admired. Her father didn't drown that day in the Pacific. But he would drown by Covid-19 many decades later on the morning of March 30, when the disease flooded his lungs with fluid.
Blais, who was 90, spent his final months of life at the Soldiers' Home in Holyoke, 90 miles west of Boston. As the virus ravaged the facility, no fewer than 94 veterans lost their lives, at least 76 of those lost testing positive with Covid-19.
Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker commissioned an independent investigation, with the final 174-page report released Wednesday.
In one line of that report a social worker calls out a decision superiors gave to consolidate infected and healthy veterans together in a single ward. The worker noted that transferring the former soldiers downstairs was "like moving the concentration camp — we (were) moving these unknowing veterans off to die."
Another harrowing interview in the investigator's report described a health worker soothing one veteran while "across from him is a veteran moaning and actively dying."
The worker explained that nearby "is another veteran who is alert and oriented, even though he is on a locked dementia unit. There is not a curtain to shield him from the man" in his last throes.
Holyoke isn't the only American nursing home that saw these horrors during the height of the pandemic. 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.
By early June, a quarter of all US nursing homes were reporting at least one death, and federal data showed at least 26,000 nursing home residents had succumbed to the virus.
Each statistic comes attached to a story — often a breath-stopping, gut punch of a story — about someone's father or mother dying alone, gasping for breath. That was the horrible reality for too many at the Soldiers' Home in Holyoke.
The grieving families of the veterans hope that by telling the stories of their loved ones — men and women who bravely served their country — other nursing home tragedies like this can be averted.
'Why in God's name would they do this to these vets?'
At the Soldiers' Home in Holyoke, Robert Blais was living in the 2-North section, and was one of the veterans who was required to join what would become a death ward on 1-North, with beds set up in the open with infected patients.
His daughter was one of the lucky few who got to see her father before he passed, despite the chaotic conditions.
"When I walked in and saw all of it, I was shocked," she said. "They had people eating their lunch while others were dying next to them. Why in God's name would they do this to these vets? They sent them literally into a death trap."
The official Covid-19 death tally at Holyoke is 76, but Blais thinks that number is higher. Her father, for instance, was swabbed on March 27, and told the results would come back in five to seven days. He didn't live to see them. So his death certificate doesn't say Covid-19.
"I called up the doctor and asked to have the death certificate changed to Covid-19," she said. After a lot of convincing, she got the actual cause of death added. But other families in the same position have tried that and failed.
Blais is left with her last happy memory of her father, a week before his death. Her family staged a birthday party for Robert, which he couldn't attend as the facility was limiting visits during the pandemic.
"He was just standing in the window blowing us kisses," she said.
The US Department of Veterans Affairs cited Holyoke as not being in compliance with Uniform Federal Accessibility Standards. A follow-up study from the state said that just 5% of the beds at the home were in compliance with VA standards, with the majority of the rooms exceeding the limit of two beds.
And in most cases, six residents would share a single bathroom, conditions that raised concerns for infection control. The study recommended revamping the building, but a 2012 proposal for a new building never got the funding needed to break ground.
Now the families are determined to rectify issues at the home that officials began raising a decade ago.
Honoring her father's commitment to service, she's enlisted in a fight of her own, working with families of other Soldiers' Home victims to build a new 53,000-square-foot addition to the the facility. Such a pro