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COVID-19 cluster at Institute for Human Services hits 66% of those exposed

  • COURTESY PHOTO
                                Willie Reopoamo Talamoa

    COURTESY PHOTO

    Willie Reopoamo Talamoa

The COVID-19 outbreak at the Institute for Human Services, which took the life of a staff member on Friday, also has resulted in positive tests for about 66% of the clients who were exposed at the men’s shelter.

Connie Mitchell, IHS executive director, said Sunday that 46 out of the 70 clients who were quarantined or isolated as a result of an outbreak at the Sumner men’s shelter in Iwilei have since become positive. Four have been hospitalized and six, who are sicker than others, have been moved to the Department of Health’s Kaaahi Temporary Quarantine and Isolation Center, Mitchell said. Five have been released from quarantine and isolation and one person has returned to the mainland, she said.

The outbreak, which began Aug. 5, also resulted in the death of 36-year-old Willie Reopoamo Talamoa, who had worked as a guest services assistant at IHS and was a former Farrington assistant football coach.

“We’re really going to miss him. He was so uplifting and encouraging,” Mitchell said. “I don’t doubt that he was instrumental in helping many people — both at IHS and young people in the community turn their lives around.”

Mitchell said Sunday that IHS has established a fundraising site, ihshawaii.org/donate/talamoafamily, to assist Talamoa’s family. People also left words of support for the family in the comments section.

Talamoa leaves behind his girlfriend, Lani; daughter, Leilie; his father, Poamo; his mother, Angie, who is also an employee at IHS; two siblings; a grandmother and many aunties, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews.

The family issued the following statement, “He was proud of his Kalihi roots and did anything to get the kids off the streets and to encourage them to use their talents on the field and courts. We are deeply saddened to lose Willie. But we trust in God and know that for Willie to be absent here with us is for him to be present with the Lord.”

“Willie’s legacy will live on in our hearts and our memories as we continue to fight the good fight and not let his death be in vain,” the family said.

Talamoa’s death and the latest statistics from the IHS outbreak are a cautionary tale for how difficult the virus can be to contain, especially in facilities where space is constrained. Based on nationwide trends, officials had been bracing since March for an outbreak at IHS, which operates two separate shelters in Iwilei — one for men and another for women and families, including children.

“It has happened in other shelters on the mainland; we were just hoping it wouldn’t happen with us,” Mitchell said. “We were screening the whole time, but once it was in it was in. People are going in and out of the shelter, so if the community has a lot of cases they are getting exposed outside as well.”

Mitchell said the outbreak followed notification to IHS that a client who had been placed in housing had tested positive for COVID-19 at work.

“The night he moved out we later learned he was symptomatic. The two days before he was able to spread it. We were hoping because he was working that he wasn’t in the shelter that much, but it still managed to get passed to somebody,” Mitchell said. “It started with the people close to him in the dormitory. We got a bunch of positives.”

Mitchell said the outbreak occurred even though the shelter had been screening temperatures. Given that COVID-19 can be asymptomatic, she said it’s not known if the client who tested positive was the sole source of the outbreak.

“A lot of our guests are not very good about following rules. We kind of have to remind them all the time,” Mitchell said. “When they leave the shelter they are sitting all together outside. I don’t think they fully comprehend the risks that they are taking sometimes. Unfortunately, they’ve had to learn the hard way and we’ve had to learn the hard way.”

Mitchell said the shelter cluster, which occurred in part because of close proximity, has provided real- world examples that hit close to home.

“We’re telling our guests look this is what can happen. Several people went to the hospital, several were really sick,” she said.

The 112-space Sumner men’s shelter began operating as a temporary quarantine and isolation facility on Aug. 14. Current Sumner clients are in isolation and quarantine for at least 14 days.

Mitchell said she expects the last person in quarantine or isolation in Sumner to finish on Sept. 2. But once the shelter reopens for new admissions there’ll be less room.

Even before the Sumner outbreak, Mitchell said bed space had been reduced from 140 to about 112. This week, she said, they’ll thin out space further, with the removal of top bunks bringing the bed count at the men’s shelter in Iwilei to just over 60.

“We’ll work even harder to get shelter guests placed into permanent or transitional housing,” she said. “As the economy has worsened the needs have grown. IHS and other groups also are stepping up our homeless prevention programs. We used to get seven to 12 calls for help a week, then it was every day, now it’s more like every hour.”

She said IHS was practicing social distancing and other precautions with staff before the outbreak, but has further increased precautions, including encouraging the donning of additional personal protective equipment and on-site COVID testing at least twice each week.

Following the IHS outbreak, a hui of over 70 individuals and organizations led by the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii called on Honolulu police and other city officials to halt homeless sweeps during the pandemic, citing earlier guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at the start of the outbreak.

The group feared that any unsheltered person who is arrested for being in a park or on a beach on Oahu would be sent to the Oahu Community Correctional Center, which also is going through an outbreak that started the first week of August.

The Department of Public Safety said Saturday that so far 242 OCCC inmates and 43 OCCC staff members had tested positive for COVID-19. The DPS did not report any new cases on Sunday, when it reported that one person from the OCCC outbreak had been hospitalized and none have recovered.

DPS said inmate releases directed through the Hawaii Supreme Court orders are ongoing. On Friday, the DPS released 11 OCCC inmates, and it released another 31 on Saturday.


Star-Advertiser reporter Dan Nakaso contributed to this story.


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