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Federal aid sought for Hilo veterans home COVID outbreak

  • CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM 
                                Free walk-up surge testing for COVID-19 was held Sunday at Aloha Stadium.

    CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM

    Free walk-up surge testing for COVID-19 was held Sunday at Aloha Stadium.

  • CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM 
                                A health care worker explained to participants how to self administer the COVID-19 test on Sunday.

    CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM

    A health care worker explained to participants how to self administer the COVID-19 test on Sunday.

  • CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM 
                                A health care worker guided participants on how to administer the COVID-19 test on Sunday at Aloha Stadium.

    CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM

    A health care worker guided participants on how to administer the COVID-19 test on Sunday at Aloha Stadium.

The continued rise in coronavirus cases and deaths at the Yukio Okutsu Veterans State Home in Hilo prompted U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz on Sunday to call for federal intervention.

Just a week ago, Hawaii island had its first two coronavirus deaths following an outbreak at the home, which opened in November 2007 as the state’s first facility to provide nursing home and care to eligible veterans. It is named after World War II veteran Yukio Okutsu, a member of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Through contact tracing, it was determined that an asymptomatic staff member likely brought the outbreak to the locked-down veterans home. Altogether, 55 residents and 18 employees have tested positive for COVID-19. Another COVID-19-related death on Sunday brought the total coronavirus-related deaths to six.

Repeat testing is ongoing and a new cluster has been identified in the past 72 hours of three or more residents and/or staff who have new-onset respiratory symptom.

As of Sunday, only five residents of the veterans home had recovered. Some 40 residents who have COVID-19 are isolated at the home. Another three residents are hospitalized at Hilo Medical Center.

“We need to contain this outbreak immediately, and we need federal help,” Schatz said in a statement issued Sunday. “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. This is a public health emergency, and we need all the help we can get to stop this outbreak and save lives.”

Schatz sent a letter Sunday to Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie seeking federal assistance in identifying “where the facility is falling short.” The letter also seeks help improving infection control protocols, use of personal protective equipment, and other measures that will protect veterans home residents and workers.

“It is increasingly clear to me that the state home is understaffed and ill equipped to stop this outbreak on its own. Moreover, I am concerned that the state and county have been too slow to respond to the crisis with the urgency that it demands, including with a request for more federal assistance,” Schatz said.

In a letter Sunday to Hawaii Gov. David Ige, Schatz said he understands that the VA Pacific Island Health Care System in Honolulu is working with the state home’s operator, Avalon Company, to provide some assistance. But he urged Ige to immediately request additional aid from the federal Department of Veterans Affairs

Ige’s communications team did not immediately respond to the Star-Advertiser.

Due to a time difference, Avalon Healthcare was not able to provide an immediate response.

Hawaii health officials on Sunday reported 164 new infections, bringing the statewide total since the beginning of the pandemic to 9,855 cases. DOH officials reported one coronavirus-related death on Sunday on Oahu for a total of 85 COVID-19-related deaths since the pandemic began. The additional fatality at the veterans home, which was reported after Sunday’s mid- day toll, is not inlcuded in that number.

COVID-19 counts on Oahu have remained in the triple digits for over a month. As Oahu went into a three-day holiday for Labor Day weekend, there was a lot riding on whether people would follow health and safety recommendations such as practicing social distancing, wearing masks, avoiding large gatherings and mostly staying home unless they were essential workers.

Lt. Gov. Josh Green warned on Friday that another two-week lockdown for Oahu might be imminent if daily cases stayed above 150 for an undetermined amount of time.

“We are doing a little better,” Green said on Sunday. “We’re about to turn the corner and have fewer active cases if we continue at this rate.”

Sunday’s 164 positive results came out of 5,107 tests, representing 3.2% of the total tested. Of the 234,903 coronavirus tests conducted so far by state and clinical laboratories in Hawaii since the start of the outbreak, a total of 4.2% have been positive.

Of Sunday’s 164 new cases, there were 146 on Oahu, 14 on Hawaii island, three in Maui County, and one on Kauai.

The beaches were closed Friday for two weeks on Hawaii island to stem the spread of coronavirus, but there’s evidence of community spread even outside of the veterans home.

The Hawaii Fire Department on Sunday reported that an active duty employee and a non-HFD employee who was participating in EMT training with the department tested positive for COVID- 19. Some 30 personnel from Hilo- Puna- and Kona-based station are currently quarantined due to work-related contact with these individuals. Five more department employees are in DOH- monitored quarantine due to non-work related exposure.

As of Sunday, 6,779 infections are considered active cases statewide, with a total of 2,991 patients now classified by health officials as “released from isolation,” or about 30% of those infected.

Of all the confirmed Hawaii cases, 597 have required hospitalizations, with five new hospitalizations reported Sunday, health officials said.

Green said Sunday there are now 257 confirmed or suspected COVID-19 patients in Hawaii hospitals.

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