HOLYOKE — Maj. Gen. Gary W. Keefe led his first Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke board of trustees meeting Tuesday night, as leaders of the state-run care facility struggle to get out from under the dark cloud of the pandemic.
Keefe, adjutant general of the Massachusetts National Guard, replaced former Chairman Kevin Jourdain at the request of Gov. Charlie Baker. Jourdain will remain on the board until his term expires in 2025.
Baker told Jourdain he thought Keefe would have more status with federal elected officials to attract federal dollars since Keefe is often in the nation’s capital in his current position, Jourdain said during a previous interview.
Jourdain made a spirited statement near the beginning of Tuesday’s meeting, encouraging Keefe and the rest of the board to stay focused on the primary goals of choosing a new superintendent and forging ahead with a new, state-of-the art facility for veterans’ care in Holyoke.
“I certainly hope going forward that we will honor these veterans whose lives we’ve lost,” Jourdain said. “I’ll remain focused like a laser beam to make sure that that happens.”
At least 76 veterans died of COVID-19 between March and June of last year. Dozens more tested positive and more than 80 staff also tested positive.
Former Superintendent Bennett Walsh and Medical Director Dr. David Clinton were indicted on criminal neglect charges in Hampden Superior Court. They pleaded not guilty to 10 criminal counts each and the case remains pending.
Keefe ran a tight ship as trustees and other stakeholders swiftly reviewed topics ranging from staffing changes, a new electronic billing and patient care portal, the rollout of vaccines, family visitation and welcoming veterans who were transferred to Holyoke Medical Center back to the Soldiers’ Home.
“Veterans residing at Holyoke Medical Center since April 2020 will be returning to the home over the next several days in a project known as ‘Operation Bring’em Home,’ as Phase II of the Refresh Project nears completion,” a spokeswoman for the state Executive Office of Health and Human Services said in a statement.
The refresh project is a $6 million initiative to boost infection control standards throughout the facility.
Interim administrator Michael Lazo told trustees the first veterans will return to the Soldiers’ Home on Jan. 14, with more to follow on Jan. 25 and in the weeks following. They were transferred out in early April when the virus began tearing through the facility and staff struggled to separate the ill from the well.
Trustee Isaac J. Mass expressed concern that approximately 60% of Soldiers’ Home staff has declined to receive coronavirus vaccines. The first dose was offered on Dec. 29 to veterans and employees. The vaccine is voluntary and cannot be mandated. However, Mass said staff who resist receiving the vaccine will become a barrier to families ever getting back into the home consistently to visit their loved ones.
Visits have largely been prohibited during the winter months as the virus surged across the country and employees have tested positive during twice-weekly screenings.
“We need to worry about the veterans’ mental health care as well as their physical health. You can’t hold someone’s hand virtually,” Mass said. “If we’re not going to make it mandatory for staff to get tested, we need to change the policy for visitation.”
State officials cautioned against running afoul of regulations around infection control, but Mass questioned how the policies would impact the future of the home.
“People are not going to be placing members in the Soldiers’ Home because they’re not going to want their family members somewhere where they can’t visit them,” Mass pressed.
MassLive story source