NEWTON, Mass. — The mayor of Holyoke, Mass., got an unsigned letter over the weekend that deeply disturbed him.
“Are you aware of the horrific circumstances at the Soldiers’ Home?” the letter read, and went on to describe serious breaches, like a resident suspected of having the coronavirus, awaiting the results of a test, being sent back to a dementia ward with 20 other veterans.
“Where is the state in addressing what is truly happening in this building?” the letter concluded.
The mayor, Alex Morse, reached out to Bennett Walsh, the superintendent of the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, a 247-bed, state-managed nursing home for veterans, to figure out what was going on.
But by then, Mr. Morse said, the damage was far more than he had imagined: In a matter of five days, eight veterans had died, apparently without being reported to either state or local officials. Others were sick with the coronavirus; staff members were too.
Mr. Walsh’s explanations left the mayor “incredibly disappointed,” and so did a conversation with Mr. Walsh’s superior, Francisco Urena, Massachusetts’ Secretary of Veterans’ Services. Frustrated and “with a sense of disappointment at the lack of urgency,” Mr. Morse contacted Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito.
By Monday, state officials had announced a series of major moves.
Mr. Walsh was placed on administrative leave. A new command structure was put in place. The National Guard was brought in to speed up testing of staff and patients.
And that, Mr. Morse said, is increasingly the role of local government in the coronavirus crisis: To keep watch.
“Mayors should make themselves available, should be vigilant in getting as much information as possible,” he said. “Mayors have to know what’s going on within their community. I don’t have oversight over the facility, but it’s still my city.”
By Tuesday, 10 residents and seven staff members had tested positive for the coronavirus, with 25 more awaiting test results. Among 13 recent deaths, tests had come back positive for the virus in six cases, while five were still pending, another was inconclusive, and another came back negative.
Flags in Holyoke, a city of 40,000 around 90 miles west of Boston, were lowered to half-staff on Tuesday in honor of the veterans who died.
“These are people who gave their all, who risked their lives to protect all of us, and they deserved better, frankly,” Mr. Morse said.
State Representative Aaron Vega, whose district includes Holyoke, said he was still trying to understand how the virus could have moved so swiftly through the home’s population without word getting out to local officials.
“All of us in Western Mass support that home, and nobody knew anything,” he said. “The fact that nobody knew anything until it was in the news is trouble.”
Gov. Charlie Baker, in a news conference, said he had not learned of the deaths until Sunday night, when he spoke with Mr. Morse.
“In the short term, our primary focus is going to be on stabilizing and supporting the health and safety of the residents and their families,” he said. “And we will get to the bottom of what happened and when — and by who.”
Messages for Mr. Walsh were not immediately answered, and no one representing the Soldiers’ Home could be immediately reached for comment.
Brooke Karanovich, a spokeswoman from the state’s Executive Office of Health and Human Services, said the state “took immediate action” as soon as it learned the extent of the coronavirus outbreak.
Most of those who have died were not identified.
But one of the dead was Theodore A. Monette, 74, a former senior official at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, who helped coordinate the emergency response in Lower Manhattan after the World Trade Center attacks, and in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
A retired U.S. Army colonel who had served in the Vietnam War and Persian Gulf war, Mr. Monette had moved into the facility two months ago after the death of his wife, who had been his caretaker.
“They told me he was probably the highest-ranked guy there,” but so self-deprecating that he would rarely tell anybody his rank, said his daughter, Aimee Monette.
She recalled that one of her father’s physical therapists once Googled him and returned to her afterward in wide-eyed amazement.
Ms. Monette said she had initially learned from a community message board on Facebook that some veterans at the Soldiers’ Home had contracted the virus.
An anxious nurse called her last week, she said, to report that her father’s oxygen levels had dropped. Ms. Monette said they should transfer him to a hospital.
“They’re all dealing with something completely new, and everyone’s scared,” she said. “I don’t want to place blame, but the protocol should have happened faster.” Mr. Monette died on Monday, and no memorial is yet scheduled, she said.
“He deserves the full-on Army taps and the flag and everything,” she said. “But we have to wait.”