76 vets die of Covid at soldiers home

They stormed the beaches at Normandy, liberated Nazi concentration camps and fought the Cold War in Korea and Vietnam only to die in their beds from a virus that infiltrated the veteran’s center in western Massachusetts that was their home.

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But on Friday the loved ones of the 76 veterans who, starting in March, died from the coronavirus at the Holyoke Soldiers Home, received a measure of belated justice.

Former Superintendent Bennett Walsh, a Marine, and the home’s ousted medical director, Dr. David Clinton, were each charged with five counts of “wantonly or recklessly” causing or permitting bodily harm and five counts of neglect or mistreatment of an older or disabled person, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healy announced.

“My heart goes out to the families that lost loved ones at the Holyoke Soldiers Home,” Healy said. “They risked their lives from Normandy to the jungles of Vietnam and to know that they died under these circumstances is truly shocking.”

Walsh, 50, and Clinton, 71, are accused of making the “disastrous decision” on March 27 to mix patients already displaying symptoms with healthy patients and accelerate the spread of Covid-19 through the center.

But the charges Healy announced stem specifically from the decision by the pair to place five asymptomatic veterans into what had been a dining area “a few feet apart” from four other vets who already had Covid-19.

One of them died, two became infected, and the other two were spared, Healy said.

Walsh and Clinton have claimed that they were grappling with staffing shortages and that they had been in regular contact with their direct supervisor, former Secretary Francisco Urena at the Department of Veterans’ Services in Boston, and other state officials, since March 21 when the first vet at the home tested positive for Covid-19.

Healy said the accused men were passing the buck. “They were the ultimate decision-makers,” she said.

In a damning report released in June, former federal prosecutor Mark Pearlstein concluded the directors at the home made “utterly baffling” mistakes while responding to the deadly outbreak.

“Even the best preparations and most careful response cannot eliminate the threat of Covid-19,” Perlstein said in the 174-page report. “But this does not excuse a failure to plan and execute on longstanding infection control principles and to seek outside help when it is required to keep patients safe — indeed, the extraordinary danger of Covid-19 makes these steps all the more important.”

The report quoted one worker at the facility who said it “felt like it was moving the concentration camp, we were moving these unknowing veterans off to die.”

Walsh, who is on administrative leave, and Clinton, who resigned after the scandal broke, are expected to be arraigned in the coming days and both could wind up facing prison sentences if convicted, Healy said.

More than 2,000 veterans have died of Covid-19 and they constitute about one percent of the more than 204,088 coronavirus fatalities, according to the latest NBC News tally.

Healy’s announcement came a day after the total number of confirmed Covid-19 cases in the U.S. eclipsed 7 million.

President Donald Trump, who has been accused of lying and misleading the American people about the dangers of the spreading pandemic, has insisted repeatedly that his team has done “a phenomenal job” even as the U.S. continues to lead the world in Covid-19 fatalities and cases.

As of Friday, the U.S. accounted for over a fifth of the nearly 1 million coronavirus deaths reported worldwide and more than a fifth of the 32.3 confirmed cases, according to the Johns Hopkins University Covid-19 dashboard.

In other coronavirus developments:

  • Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis gave bars and restaurants in his state the green light to reopen at full capacity, both indoors and outdoors. And if local governments want to limit dining, they will have to convince the state it’s necessary. “There will be no limitations from the state of Florida,” DeSantis promised. The governor’s move comes some four months after he reopened Florida the first time at Trump’s urging. “We haven’t seen an explosion of new cases,” DeSantis said. Within days, Florida was hit with a surge of new Covid-19 cases and deaths. Facing a catastrophe, DeSantis shut down the bars in June and reluctantly imposed other restrictions. Most of Florida’s 13,914 Covid-19 deaths (fifth highest in the country) and 695,887 infections (third highest in the country) came after DeSantis signed his April 29 executive order. Since the start of August, Florida’s per-capita death rate has been second only to Mississippi, according to an NBC News accounting. But Florida has been averaging 2,900 new cases per day in September, which is dramatic drop from August, when the state was averaging about 5,500 new cases per day, and July, when the state was reporting an average 10,200 new cases per day.
  • Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam and his wife have tested positive for the coronavirus. Northam, who is a Democrat and a doctor, got tested after being told that a member of the staff at his official residence had tested positive. “As I’ve been reminding Virginians throughout this crisis, Covid-19 is very real and very contagious,” Northam, who has not shown any symptoms, said in a statement. His announcement came a day after the governor of Missouri, Mike Parson, and his wife, revealed they tested positive. Unlike Parson, who is a Republican, Northam has actively stressed the need for Virginians to wear masks. He has also blasted Trump for scheduling a campaign event in his state later Friday that will pack some 4,000 people together in defiance of the governor’s executive order limiting public gatherings. Parson, by contrast, has refused to mandate masks and has been hit-or-miss about wearing one himself at public events. “You don’t need government to tell you to wear a dang mask,” Parson has said.
  • The Pacific-12 Conference has called an audible and will play college football after all. After first deciding it was unsafe to potentially expose student athletes to illness while in the midst of a pandemic, “the conference said that football teams approved to play by local and state health officials can kick off Nov. 6, while basketball will begin Nov. 25,” NBC News reported. But the players will be required to have weekly Covid-19 tests. Better known as Pac-12, the conference of West Coast and Rocky Mountain region universities were under increasing pressure to play ball after the Big 12 and Atlantic Coast Conferences resumed competition and the Southeastern Conference announced plans to kick off tomorrow.
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