Case of 76 in veterans home who died of COVID lands in court

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. (AP) — Two former top officials at a Massachusetts veterans home where nearly 80 residents died in one of the country’s deadliest COVID-19 outbreaks in a long-term care facility appeared in court Tuesday in an effort to have their criminal charges dismissed.

Lawyers for former Holyoke Soldiers’ Home Superintendent Bennett Walsh and former Medical Director Dr. David Clinton argued on a number of motions to dismiss the case in Hampden Superior Court in Springfield.

They maintained the state had not met its burden of proof for charging their clients with 10 counts each, including abuse, neglect, or mistreatment of an elderly or disabled person.

“We don’t think anyone here should be blamed criminally for anything,” Michael Jennings, a lawyer for Walsh, argued. “The blame here belongs to the virus, not with anyone who worked in that nursing home.”

Prosecutors argued that the decision by Walsh, Clinton and other facility leaders to cram residents who were positive for the coronavirus into the same unit as those with no symptoms was negligent.

The judge didn’t immediately make a ruling, and another court date was set for the end of October.

Walsh and Clinton have complained they’re being scapegoated by state officials. One of Walsh’s lawyers also suggested Tuesday that his client’s effort to alert state officials relatively early in the crisis helped save lives by allowing the state to mobilize the National Guard.

But an independent report commissioned by the state concluded that “utterly baffling” decisions made by facility administrators allowed the virus to spread unchecked last March as the pandemic took hold in the U.S.

At least 76 veterans died from the virus over 11 weeks, and many more residents and staff were sickened.

Earlier this month, veterans home workers filed a class-action suit against several members of the facility’s former leadership team, including Walsh and Clinton.

The workers allege they were forced to care for sick and dying veterans, sometimes after testing positive themselves, in “inhumane conditions.”

The workers argued in the lawsuit filed in federal court that Holyoke Soldiers’ Home administrators initially ignored guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for containing the virus and lied to state officials about measures they were taking to protect residents and staff once the first veteran tested positive in March 2020.

Walsh, who resigned in October, declined to comment. Clinton strongly denied the allegations.

___ The headline on this article has been corrected to show that 76 residents died, not 80.

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