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Seniors most at risk of coronavirus, so take precautions, Hawaii officials say

  • BRUCE ASATO / BASATO@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                Seniors participate in a variety of programs at Lanakila Multi-Purpose Senior Center, including this Tai Chi for Life Class with instructor Randy Lau on Monday.

    BRUCE ASATO / BASATO@STARADVERTISER.COM

    Seniors participate in a variety of programs at Lanakila Multi-Purpose Senior Center, including this Tai Chi for Life Class with instructor Randy Lau on Monday.

Seniors are the most likely to die from the new coronavirus, and concerted action is needed here to prevent the sort of disaster that unfolded at a Seattle-area nursing home, local officials say.

John McDermott, Hawaii’s long-term care ombudsman, said there are almost 13,000 long-term care beds in the state. At a news conference Monday held by Kokua Council, he urged everyone who visits nursing homes or other medical facilities to take precautions to keep patients safe, including staying away if they are sick.

“There is no case of the virus in any of our long-term care facilities,” McDermott said Monday. “If that does happen, it means somebody has brought it in. We have lots of visitors — vendors, family members, volunteers, church groups. We really have to do a better job of monitoring who’s coming into our facilities.”

“We need to make sure everybody, including staff, are being checked for the virus,” he said. “Everybody has to up their game, basically. This is very serious.”

In Kirkland, Wash., more than a dozen residents of Life Care Center nursing home have died from the coronavirus after it apparently circulated undetected.

McDermott was joined at the news conference by representatives of nonprofits that work with seniors and Lt. Gov. Josh Green, a physician, who is helping lead Hawaii’s response to the virus.

Green urged relatives to telephone their loved ones who are in nursing homes or other facilities rather than visit in person if they have any symptoms. Employees who are sick should be able to stay home and still get paid, he said.

“We’re working to make sure people who economically need those jobs will get worker’s compensation, will get unemployment benefits and so on in case they have to be away from work,” Green said. “We have to make sure that our employees who are working with seniors are not sick. That’s very, very important.”

Green noted that regular influenza is also dangerous to seniors, with as many as 500 million cases of influenza a year and 250,000 to 500,000 deaths. That compares with 110,753 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 3,888 deaths worldwide so far, he said.

“Although the risk is very high at this moment that COVID-19 will spread and continue to spread, it is infinitely smaller than influenza,” Green said. “I want to reassure people about that.”

“Why do we worry more about COVID-19 than the flu?” he added. “On a case-by-case basis COVID-19 is more lethal. The mortality rate can be as high as 14% for people age 80 and up. Right now only about 1 out of 1,000 people will die of the flu.”

So far, Hawaii has had two confirmed cases of the coronavirus, the first a cruise ship passenger who is doing well and the second a man in his 90s who visited Washington state and was hospitalized upon his return.

McDermott said he visited a long-term care facility last week where visitors were asked whether they had visited hot-spot countries or had contact with a high-risk person before being allowed in.

“It was all self-reported,” he said. “I went back to that facility yesterday, and now they’re taking your temperature.”

But at another facility he saw family members ignoring signs to “gown up” before entering rooms, and he told staff they need to enforce the rules.

Green said Hawaii should be running 250 to 500 tests for the coronavirus each week now and soon ramp up to thousands after private laboratories begin doing so. He said people getting tested will not face “extra fees” whether they are insured or not.

“Our hospitals are prepared,” Green said. “We have adequate intensive care unit spaces. We have 166 isolation beds across the state, and our health care providers are being very well equipped.”

“I think Hawaii is better prepared than any other place that I’ve seen. We’re just mindful because we get so many travelers,” he added.

At Lanakila Multi-purpose Senior Center, where seniors gather for various classes and exercise, program coordinator Suzanne Chun Oakland said the staff works to prevent the spread of any disease through proper hygiene and precautions.

“We encourage people not to come to the center if they’re sick, to wash their hands before they eat, not to touch their eyes or face,” Chun Oakland said. “They need to be very aware of what they’re touching.”

“We’ve tried to clean everything, all the things that people touch,” she said. “This was before coronavirus, too. It’s preventing as much as possible transmission of any kind of germs that could cause illness.”

Green advised that agencies delivering meals on wheels make sure their staff and volunteers do so only if they are well. And he reiterated precautions that can keep people healthy.

“Get your flu shot, wash your hands… stay 3 to 6 feet away from somebody so that if they sneeze the droplets will not get on you,” he said.

Larry Geller, president emeritus of the Kokua Council, said he is concerned about people in the many unlicensed care homes in Hawaii.

“The state government needs to reach out to the operators to make sure they have all the info and instructions that they need,” Geller said. “But they can’t because they don’t know where they are.”

Correction: The caption in an earlier version of this story misidentified the senior class and the instructor.
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