The refrigerator truck parked outside was the tipoff that something terribly wrong was going on inside the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home. Summoned by the politically appointed superintendent of the state-run nursing home, the truck was there to hold the growing number of bodies of elderly veterans who had succumbed to COVID-19, allowing the superintendent to keep the unfolding tragedy quiet.
But staff members at the bedsides of these frail veterans, many literally gasping for breath, would not remain quiet, complaining to Holyoke’s mayor and Globe reporters alike about the dangerous conditions. How they were forced to put infected residents in the same room with uninfected ones. How they were discouraged from wearing protective gear. How they weren’t being honest with the families.
The scene in Holyoke became a disturbingly familiar occurrence over and over during the pandemic in Massachusetts. The state had one of the highest death tolls in nursing homes; roughly 58 percent of deaths occurred there. At one point, one in seven Massachusetts nursing home residents had died from COVID-19.
This wasn’t just the pandemic taking its usual toll. The tragedy of Massachusetts nursing homes was a distinct failure of officials in power, including the governor himself. Patronage hires at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home and a subsequent lack of oversight and procedures created the conditions that allowed the virus to thrive.
The Globe’s reporting led to change: Both the head of the Holyoke home and the secretary of Veterans Affairs resigned in the wake of investigations prompted by the Globe’s reporting. Calls for reform in the broader nursing home system continue to this day.
We proudly submit the Globe’s coverage of nursing homes for the OJA in topical reporting for the pandemic.