Veterans home in Hawaii records an eighth death as COVID-19 cases dip in state

By SUSAN ESSOYAN | The Honolulu Star-Advertiser | Published: September 8, 2020

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HONOLULU (Tribune News Service) — An eighth resident of the Yukio Okutsu State Veterans Home in Hilo died Monday, one of 58 residents at the nursing home who have tested positive for COVID-19.

The vast majority of the facility’s residents have contracted the disease, apparently after an asymptomatic employee brought it on-site, according to contact tracing. The nursing home has 74 residents, according to Avalon Health Care, which manages it.

The first coronavirus- related death was recorded Aug. 29, just 10 days ago. As of Monday two residents of the were hospitalized, while 34 others who tested positive are being cared for in its separate COVID-19 section. Fourteen residents have recovered from the disease.

The patient who died Monday had underlying medical conditions and had been transferred to Hilo Medical Center for care. No further details were released.

“COVID is an insidious and highly contagious virus that is hitting our nation’s nursing homes the hardest,” said Allison Griffiths, a vice president and spokeswoman for Avalon Health Care Management, based in Salt Lake City. “We are so thankful for our dedicated staff who are working tirelessly to protect our veterans. It’s so difficult for them to lose veterans whom they love like family.”

The veterans home has 143 employees, 18 of whom have also tested positive, she said. None has been hospitalized. One has recovered and returned to work, but the rest are still off duty and isolating at home.

Despite that, Griffiths said in a phone interview that the facility is not understaffed because it has brought in reinforcements from Oahu, but added that it would welcome help from the Department of Veterans Affairs. She said it has enough personal protective equipment for now.

“Nearly all of the staff are in N-95 respirators, which is above what is called for by the CDC guidelines,” she said. “If anything, we could use additional small-sized N-95 respirators as those are the most difficult things to procure right now. We currently have an adequate supply to protect our staff.”

“Testing is really key, and we have been lucky to be able to test approximately every three days all staff and residents,” she added.

On Sunday, U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz issued a call for federal help to remedy the situation at the veterans home.

“I’m calling on the VA to immediately step in and deploy infection control experts and other health care professionals to the Big Island to get this under control,” he said. “This is a public health emergency, and we need all the help we can get to stop this outbreak and save lives.”

Dan Brinkman, CEO of the East Hawaii Region of Hawaii Health Systems Corp., which includes Hilo Medical Center, agreed that more assistance would be useful.

“We welcome the support of local, state and federal agencies for the COVID-19 outbreak at the Yukio Okutsu State Veterans Home,” he said. “The COVID virus is a beast, and additional expert help to combat it is greatly appreciated.”

“Avalon Healthcare, the home’s managing company since 2007, is working tirelessly to stem the outbreak, and I greatly appreciate the efforts of their local dedicated staff,” Brinkman added.

Meanwhile, the state Department of Health reported 105 new positive coronavirus cases statewide Monday, a relatively low number. The figure was 271 on Friday and dipped to 221 on Saturday and 164 on Sunday.

The department also reported one death Monday on Oahu, for a total of 86 fatalities statewide out of 9,956 cases to date during the pandemic. About 6,845 of those cases are considered active infections. About 30%, or 3,028, are classified as “released from isolation.”

There is a lag in the statewide report while information is verified, so Monday’s figures did not include the most recent deaths at the Hilo veterans home.

Oahu has had the highest number of coronavirus cases, reaching 9,000 since the start of the outbreak through Labor Day, according to Health Department data. Hawaii county has had 517 cases, Maui county 358, and Kauai 58.

The outbreak at the Oahu Community Correctional Center appears to be trending downward, with fewer inmates testing positive, according to the Department of Public Safety. Over the last week, starting Aug. 31, there were 11 positive cases out of 339 people tested.

There are currently 58 inmates with active cases at OCCC and 231 inmates have recovered, according to figures released Monday. Among staff, there are 43 active cases and 37 have recovered.

“The decrease in positive cases is a testament to the hardworking staff who are making every effort to mitigate the spread and continue following the pandemic plan,” said Maria Cook, DPS deputy director for administration. “We also want to thank the Department of Health for all their help during this time to identify hot spots and bring the virus under control.”

”We know we aren’t in the clear, and the overcrowded conditions make it difficult, but we are confident our staff are doing everything the DOH recommends to continue mitigating spread,” she said.

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