Nearly 70 residents sickened with the coronavirus have died at a Massachusetts home for aging veterans, as state and federal officials try to figure out what went wrong in the deadliest known outbreak at a long-term care facility in the U.S.
While the death toll at the state-run Holyoke Soldiers’ Home continues to climb, federal officials are investigating whether residents were denied proper medical care and the state’s top prosecutor is deciding whether to bring legal action.
“It’s horrific,” said Edward Lapointe, whose father-in-law lives at the home and had a mild case of the virus. “These guys never had a chance.”
Sixty-eight veteran residents who tested positive for the virus have died, officials said Tuesday, and it’s not known whether another person who died had COVID-19. Another 82 residents and 81 employees have tested positive.
The home’s superintendent, who’s been placed on administrative leave, has defended his response and accused state officials of falsely claiming they were unaware of the scope of the problem there.
A few weeks ago, videos surfaced on the internet showing what appeared to be mass burials in New York City. In aerial footage, captured by an Associated Press drone camera on April 9, workers wearing protective gear are seen arranging coffins in a wide, muddy trench. The process appears orderly, efficient and unsentimental. Laborers unload the coffins from forklifts and stack them in neat rows. They place plywood sheets on top of the piles; occasionally, they can be seen treading on the coffins. The bird’s-eye vantage point lends the scene a chilling impersonality. It is, simply, a worksite: When the burial crew shovels dark dirt over the plain wooden boxes, they do so with the unceremonious diligence of a street repair team scooping asphalt into a pothole.
The site of this grisly activity is Hart Island, a 101-acre strip that sits off the coast of the Bronx in Long Island Sound. It is the home of New York’s potter’s field, the city’s cemetery for the indigent and anonymous — the homeless, those who cannot be identified, those whose families cannot afford to provide a burial. The videos emerged as the coronavirus outbreak ravaged New York, and after they circulated, officials confirmed what viewers suspected: The city had begun interring unclaimed bodies of Covid-19 victims in the potter’s field. “The pictures of our fellow New Yorkers being buried on Hart Island are devastating for all of us,” tweeted New York’s mayor, Bill de Blasio.
For more than a century and a half, Hart Island has been a dreadful destination, a place you don’t want to end up. In 1865, the Union Army established a Civil War prison camp there; three German prisoners of war were confined on the island during World War II. Disease has chased earlier generations to the island: It once held a tuberculosis sanitarium, and during a yellow-fever outbreak in 1870, it was used to quarantine the sick. Over the decades, Hart Island has been the site of city jails, an almshouse, an insane asylum for women, a “reformatory for vicious boys” and a drug rehabilitation facility. The structures that housed these institutions are now abandoned and ghostly — haunted houses that have been documented in online photo galleries by urban spelunkers.
But the island is most famous, or infamous, as a burial ground: the “mecca of New York City’s friendless dead,” as one turn-of-the-century chronicler, Charles Wilbur de Lyon Nichols, put it. An estimated one million bodies have been interred on the island. In recent years, some of these human remains have reappeared aboveground: Erosion of the Hart Island shoreline has caused bones to be disinterred and scattered along the beachfront.