HOLYOKE, MA (WGGB/WSHM) -- The Holyoke Soldiers' Home is now at the center of several state and federal investigations after more than 70 veteran residents have died of COVID-19 since the end of March.
As the virus ripped through the home, there's a renewed goal in improving infection control in the facility.
Now, two former employees are telling us about what they saw in the home for years when it came to preventing the spread of disease.
We spoke with two nurses who used to work at the Holyoke Soldiers' Home. Both left before the deadly coronavirus outbreak occurred.
However, when the news broke of 89 vets dying - 74 of them from COVID-19 - both told us they weren't surprised the spreading virus got out of hand.
“We didn’t always think that they took it as seriously as we thought it should’ve been working on the floors so closely with these veterans,” said Carol Konrad, a former nurse at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home.
It's not that the Holyoke Soldiers' Home has historically lacked planning for infection control.
According to Konrad, it just wasn't always implemented or communicated well.
“We had an infection control nurse, but it was not listed out for us to - ‘this is what you actually do,’” Konrad said.
Konrad, who worked for the home for three decades, said it was common for staff to learn about a new infection in the building via rumors - spreading through the halls like a virus.
“They would say ‘Well, they have it over there’ or you would it hear through the grapevine that they had it over there, and then you would say to yourself ‘Well, ok.’ Then the next day, you would have one of the workers from
‘over there’ working on your floor,” Konrad explained.
Konrad said throughout her time at the home, it wasn't unusual for staff members to be floated from unit to unit, even when a spreadable disease was discovered on a floor.
“Anybody could be a carrier of anything as we well know in this COVID-19,” Konrad said.
Konrad said this was the case when she retired almost five years ago, but Nancy Harand, another nurse who left in the middle of 2019, said the practice of floating was still happening, mainly because of short staffing.
“Unfortunately, it doesn’t work when it comes to human beings. You can’t do more with less,” Harand said.
The COVID-19 outbreak has thrust the home's infection control into the spotlight, due to the virus's deadly nature.
More than 70 veterans who've died since the end of March have tested positive for the disease.
Western Mass News submitted a public records request for the infection control protocol at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, both during and prior to the outbreak.
In a four page letter denying our request, officials for the Soldiers' Home said releasing that information, in part:
"...may paint an incomplete picture of the management of HLY at the relevant time."
“We always wanted them to be upfront,” Konrad said.
Over the years, both Konrad and Harand said the home has dealt with flare-ups of a condition that isn't deadly but was communicable nonetheless: scabies.
“We were left to deal with it,” Harand said.
Konrad said during a particularly bad outbreak, the home gave nurses medication to take for scabies.
However, both said staffing issues and the home’s same practice of floating staff from unit-to-unit made the skin mites difficult to control.
“It was almost like 'Well, they have it over there, but it’s only over there.' Well, not necessarily, not when you transfer people from over there,” Konrad noted.
Harand added, “You could have someone on one unit that was positive for scabies and that staff could end up on another unit the next day.”
We got one glimpse into the Soldiers' Home's attempts at infection control, with a copy of the home's Board of Trustees minutes Western Mass News obtained.
The document from March 10 outlines claims from the home's administration stating they were able to contain a flu outbreak in seven to eight days by giving the veterans medicine and deep-cleaning the facility.
According to the minutes, the home was planning to do the same for COVID-19.
Later in the document, the administration said they participated in meeting and phone calls with the city of Holyoke to better prepare for the outbreak.
“You’re down in the unit that is blowing up with it and then the very next shift, you’re back on my unit,” said current nurse Joan Miller to Western Mass News on April 1.
However, as Western Mass News reported at the beginning of the outbreak, employees said low staffing levels, insufficient protective equipment, and moving employees and residents around the building contributed to the virus’s spread.
Those factors, appearing to have overtaken any kind of written or planned infection control.
Harand, who said she speaks with coworkers still at the facility, couldn't help but feel frustrated for the staff working during the outbreak.
“They felt like failures and that facility set them up for that,” Harand said.
Konrad, who said she wasn't surprised when she learned of the outbreak, said she cried for the veterans - those who battled through wars of which they would not speak, only to die from a microscopic enemy.
“They survive that and to die this way, it was a terrible tragedy,” Konrad added.
According to state officials, a new project focusing on infection control is underway in the third floor now.
The goal is to make the building safe for the return of the veteran residents who are still alive and receiving skilled nursing care at Holyoke Medical Center.