Head of veterans home resigns amid charges over virus deaths

FILE - In this Sept. 11, 2019 file photo, Bennett Walsh, superintendent of the Soldiers' Home in Holyoke, speaks at a 9/11 ceremony in West Springfield, Mass. Walsh submitted his resignation Thursday, Oct. 1, 2020, in a letter to the home's Board of Trustees, amid criminal charges over his handling of the coronavirus outbreak at the home for aging veterans where more than 70 died from COVID-19.

BOSTON (AP) — The leader of a Massachusetts home for aging veterans where nearly 80 people sickened with the coronavirus have died has resigned amid criminal charges over his handling of the pandemic.

Former Holyoke Soldiers' Home Superintendent Bennett Walsh submitted his resignation Thursday in a letter to the home's Board of Trustees, MassLive.com reported.

Last week, a grand jury indicted Walsh and the home's former medical director, Dr. David Clinton, on charges stemming from their decision in March to combine two dementia units, putting residents who had tested positive for the coronavirus in the same space as those with no symptoms, investigators said.

Walsh was placed on administrative leave last spring and fired by Gov. Charlie Baker in June. Last month, however, a judge ruled that Walsh's firing was improper as it had to be done by the home's Board of Trustees.

The board had called a special meeting for Monday to discuss personnel issues including the possible removal of staff, raising the likelihood that Walsh might be fired a second time.

Walsh could face prison time if convicted of causing or permitting serious bodily harm of an elder, according to Attorney General Maura Healey's office, who said the case is believed to be the first in the nation brought against nursing home officials for actions during the pandemic.

Since March 1, 76 veterans who contracted the coronavirus at the home have died, officials said.

Walsh has defended his response, saying state officials initially refused in March to send National Guard aid even as the home was dealing with dire staffing shortages. A message left with his attorney Friday was not immediately returned.

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EVICTIONS

The looming end of a state ban on evictions could lead to new cases of the coronavirus and economic and housing problems for thousands, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh warned Friday.

Massachusetts' ban on evictions is set to expire Oct. 17. Without the protection in place, many people struggling to pay rent during the pandemic will have no choice but to move in with others or scramble for housing, Walsh said, potentially putting them at greater risk of exposure.

To help, the city has set up a rental relief fund that has already helped about 900 families pay their rent. Walsh said he's also considering ways to help renters impacted by the pandemic get legal representation during eviction proceedings.

“The unemployment numbers say that a very large number of tenants, statewide and in Boston, are having a hard time paying their rents,” Walsh said at a press conference Friday. “If people get evicted they often end up in our shelter system or doubling up with family and friends. It creates conditions where the virus can much more easily spread.”

Walsh said he will also propose a new city rule requiring landlords to notify tenants of their rights when beginning the eviction process.

The Boston Housing Authority, the city's largest provider of affordable housing, has blocked all evictions through the end of the year.

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State public health officials on Friday reported more than 750 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 — the second consecutive day with more than 700 cases and largest number for a single day since the end of May.

Officials also reported 10 new deaths, pushing the death toll in Massachusetts to at least 9,275.

Total cases surged past 131,200.

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

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