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Sons sue over father's death at Hawaii veterans home

By KRISTEN CONSILLIO | The Honolulu Star-Advertiser | Published: October 1, 2020

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(Tribune News Service) — A wrongful death lawsuit against the operator of the Yukio Okutsu State Veterans Home in Hilo has been filed by the sons of Chris Drayer, a decorated Vietnam War veteran who died after contracting COVID-19 in Hawaii’s largest coronavirus nursing home outbreak.

The complaint filed in Third Circuit Court against Utah-based Avalon Health Care and four of its affiliates by Noah Bennett-Drayer and Daniel Bennett-Drayer alleges Drayer died due to “Avalon’s substandard care and non-existent health safety practices.”

“Chris Drayer did not deserve to die at Yukio. He died because Avalon failed to keep him safe. It is beyond belief that nearly six months after the onset of the worst pandemic in 100 years, a facility caring for the most vulnerable members of our community could fail to practice the most basic of protections for its residents,” Hawaii island attorney Jeffrey Foster said in a news release. “The 26 veterans at Yukio who have died due to COVID-19 appear to have been victims of Avalon’s gross mismanagement and we intend to hold the Avalon entities legally accountable.”

Avalon spokeswoman Allison Griffiths said she couldn’t comment on individual cases due to privacy laws, but that “we mourn every life that has been lost to this historic pandemic as our heroic health care workers continue to fight to save lives.”

“The health and safety of our residents is always our top priority,” she said.

Drayer, 70, was tested for the coronavirus on Aug. 28, but his sons were not notified about the positive results until Aug. 31, according to the complaint. The family had planned to bring him home from the facility that week and made modifications to the home in preparation of his return.

Drayer died two days later on Sept. 2. The U.S. Army veteran was honorably discharged after serving two tours in Vietnam and being awarded numerous medals that include the Bronze Star.

The 95-bed veterans home has become a COVID-19 hot spot, with a total of 71 residents and 35 employees contracting the virus to date and at least 27 fatalities attributed to the outbreak, including a death reported Wednesday.

State government hospital administrators are preparing to take over the beleaguered facility from Avalon, following calls for the company’s removal by Hawaii island Mayor Harry Kim. The operator, which also manages Avalon Care Center Honolulu and Hale Nani Rehabilitation and Nursing Center in Makiki, has come under fire for a “total lack of really basic infection control issues,” according to Hawaii long-term care ombudsman John McDermott.

Griffiths earlier told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that the company was disappointed with how “politically charged this situation has gotten,” and that there was an “unprecedented” lack of support by the Department of Health and other state agencies.

A federal team from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs specializing in infection control and safety arrived earlier this month at the Yukio Okutsu State Veterans Home to help put an end to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Meanwhile, an assessment by the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency found “multiple potential sources of infections” brought into the facility by employees who appear to be “connected to known community outbreaks, unknown asymptomatic but infectious carriers (staff), and community outbreak exposure at a dialysis center.”

The report noted complacency by staff may also have played a role in the spread of the virus, particularly in the break room, where employees gathered without masks. A separate report by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs said that “there was very little proactive preparation/planning for COVID” at the only veterans care home in the islands, established in 2008.

Health officials reported Wednesday two additional coronavirus deaths and 121 new infections statewide — representing 5.9% of the 2,049 new tests counted — bringing the total since the start of the pandemic to 136 deaths and 12,410 cases. Meanwhile, the University of Hawaii at West Oahu reported that a student died Friday after contracting the virus.

There are 1,976 infections considered active statewide, and a total of 10,298 patients now classified as recovered, or 82.98% of those infected.

At least 21 nursing homes have reported coronavirus cases among staff or residents in the past 28 days, the DOH said on its website. They include 15 in Honolulu, two on Maui and four on Hawaii island.

The U.S. death toll has topped 206,000.

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