CNA Joseph Ramirez remembers 2020, when over 75 veterans at the facility died in two months.
This article is part of our series, The Long March 2020, looking back on three years of the COVID-19 pandemic in western Mass. For an updated list of all articles in this series, see our introductory piece.
By Dusty Christensen
HOLYOKE — When the month of March rolls, some people, if they’re lucky, might recall details about the beginnings of the COVID-19 pandemic like the lockdowns at home, empty store shelves or baking bread.
For Joseph Ramirez, he remembers more than 75 people dying at his workplace in less than two months.
It has been three years now since the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke became the site of one of the deadliest COVID-19 outbreaks in the country. At least 76 veterans died as the virus swept through the home during the earliest days of the pandemic. More than 80 other veterans and more than 80 employees contracted the virus as well; that includes Ramirez, who is a certified nursing assistant, or CNA, at the home.
“It certainly has changed a lot of us,” Ramirez told The Shoestring. “It has changed myself, my coworkers, and it has certainly changed the home.”
In the wake of the tragedy, the Soldiers’ Home staff, residents and families have gone through a lot: several changes in leadership, subsequent outbreaks that closed the doors to visitors and plenty of trauma. Last year, the families of the veterans reached a $56 million settlement with the state in a lawsuit over the home’s handling of the outbreak. A federal judge dismissed a similar lawsuit brought by staffers, however, and a Hampden Superior Court judge dismissed criminal charges against leaders of the home. Both of those decisions have been appealed.
For those working inside the building, though, Ramirez said that the anniversary of the horror they experienced feels surreal. He said he sees news come across his social media and it is hard to believe that it was only three years ago.
“We all still have trauma from it,” he said. “Just recently, some of my coworkers have had their own emotional breakdowns … It finally hit them, dealing with everything they held inside and went through.”
Ramirez said that as coworkers, they share those scars, both mental and physical.
“Any of us that got COVID, it did something to our mind or our memory,” he said. “We all get that brain frog, we forget things or we laugh at ourselves and say, ‘Oh, we’re just getting old.’ I think for a lot of us, we forget what we were doing. There’s that moment of time where we walk into a room and say, ‘What am I doing here?’”
Others, he said, have suffered from breathing issues or have gotten sick more easily.
There was a time when Ramirez, who is the vice president of the labor union representing CNAs and other staffers, wanted to quit working at the Soldiers’ Home and in health care in general.
“I felt like I couldn’t do it anymore, I just felt like I was in a dark place,” he said, adding that he had to take time off before deciding to return to the home. “I had to remember why I do what I do and how much I love going to work and I still love taking care of my vets.”
Under previous leadership of the Soldiers’ Home before the pandemic, workers complained of a toxic, bullying leadership that didn’t listen to front-line workers. Ramirez said that under current management, workers are listened to and that managers do their best to accommodate what they’re concerned about.
“It definitely has done a turnabout as to the working conditions as far as management and the workers,” he said. “As far as pay, that continues to be an issue.”
The state is moving forward with the construction of a $415 million, 234-bed facility to replace the existing Soldiers’ Home.
The virus also changed the spirit at the Soldiers’ Home, Ramirez said. He said many families don’t come visit like they used to, and that the population of the home has shrunk. But he said workers are striving to change that.
“For the staff at the home, we ourselves are resilient and are fighters,” he said. “We weren’t going to give up and not take care of our vets … I think every day something new and wonderful happens in the home that brings us closer to getting back to those days when it felt very welcoming, it felt very loving, it felt very comfortable. It felt like any family member could come and just feel at ease knowing their loved one is being taken care of.”
‘It’s a long journey,” Ramirez continued, “but every day, the staff, management, the nurses, the CNAs, housekeeping, kitchen, everyone is doing their part to bring that back to the home.”
Dusty Christensen is an independent investigative reporter based in western Massachusetts. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @dustyc123.
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