Two former leaders of a Massachusetts veterans’ home were indicted on charges of criminal neglect in connection to a coronavirus outbreak that contributed to the deaths of at least 76 residents, the state’s attorney general said on Friday.
Bennett Walsh, 50, and Dr. David Clinton, 71, were indicted Thursday by a state grand jury on charges related to their work at the facility, the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke, Mass. Mr. Walsh had been the superintendent of the facility, and Dr. Clinton its medical director.
“We believe this is the first criminal case in the country brought against those involved in nursing homes during the Covid-19 pandemic,” the state attorney general, Maura Healey, said at a news conference Friday. The men face felony charges and if convicted they could face years or even decades in prison, she added.
“We allege that the actions of these defendants during the Covid-19 outbreak at the facility put veterans at higher risk of infection and death and warrant criminal charges,” she said in a statement.
Each man was indicted on five counts for two charges; the specific charges were for caretakers who “wantonly or recklessly” permit or cause bodily injury and abuse, neglect or mistreatment of an older or disabled person. The criminal neglect charge carries a term of up to three years, and the serious bodily injury charge carries a sentence of up to 10 years for each count, Ms. Healey said.
Mr. Walsh’s lawyer, Tracy A. Miner, said in an email that he planned to plea not guilty.
“It is unfortunate that the attorney general is blaming the effects of a deadly virus that our state and federal governments have not been able to stop on Bennett Walsh,” she said. Mr. Walsh, she added, “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.”
A lawyer for Dr. Clinton could not immediately be reached for comment.
The Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke, a state-run facility that provides health care, hospice care and other assistance to veterans, has been under investigation since early April, when the attorney general’s office said it learned of “serious issues with Covid-19 infection control procedures.”
By then, the authorities were growing increasingly worried about the facility, which was established in 1952 and housed frail veterans of World War II and other conflicts. Within five days, eight veterans had died, others were sick with the coronavirus, and staff members were also falling ill. Flags in Holyoke, a city of 40,000 residents more than 90 miles west of Boston, were lowered to half-staff in late March.
Investigators focused on the events of late March, when staff members combined two dementia wards with infected veterans and healthy residents, “increasing the exposure of asymptomatic veterans to the virus,” the attorney general’s office said.
Because of staffing shortages, the facility consolidated the units, which had a total of 42 residents who had different Covid-19 statuses, the office said. Residents who were positive or symptomatic were placed six in a room that typically held four veterans, it said.
Residents believed to be asymptomatic were placed in nine beds in the dining room, where they were “a few feet apart from each other” and next to the room where the infected patients were, it said.
One employee of the facility told investigators that the decision to merge wards was “the most insane thing I ever saw in my entire life,” according to a report released months later.
“The residents in the consolidated unit were allegedly mingling together, regardless of Covid-19 status,” the office said, adding that this decision was reckless from an infection control perspective and placed the asymptomatic veterans at “an increased risk of contracting Covid-19.”
In June, investigators released a 174-page report that depicted a facility in chaos, excoriated the decision to combine crowded wards and described conditions in nightmarish terms. In addition to cataloging a series of errors in protecting residents, the report quoted people who worked at the facility, including one who said it “felt like it was moving the concentration camp, we were moving these unknowing veterans off to die.”
The office said that Mr. Walsh and Dr. Clinton, who were not taken into custody, would be arraigned in Hampden County Superior Court but did not specify a date. Dr. Clinton resigned after the investigators’ report, and Mr. Walsh was placed on administrative leave on March 30.
Nursing homes, which house populations considered to be at high risk for the coronavirus, have suffered throughout the pandemic, and about 40 percent of coronavirus cases in the United States have been linked to nursing homes. At least 77,000 residents and workers have died from the virus at nursing homes and other long-term care facilities for older adults nationwide, according to a New York Times database.
The severity of outbreaks at nursing homes has drawn scrutiny at the officials who manage them in several states. In August, the Justice Department announced that it had requested Covid-19 data from states that issued orders “which may have resulted in the deaths of thousands of elderly nursing home residents.”
The department noted that New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Michigan required nursing homes to admit Covid-19 patients “to their vulnerable populations, often without adequate testing.”