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Hilo veterans home outbreak prompts more scrutiny

Two more coronavirus deaths related to an outbreak at the Yukio Okutsu State Veterans Home were reported Sunday by Avalon Healthcare, whose infection control practices are under federal review.

The state Department of Health’s midday Sunday tally included two corona­virus-­related deaths on Oahu and 114 new infections statewide. That brought the count of COVID-19 fatalities to 99 and the cases to 10,700 since the pandemic began.

State health officials have yet to count the latest reported coronavirus-related deaths on Hawaii island at the veterans home, where 12 residents have now died. Health officials have told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that the Hilo fatalities are pending verification of the cause. Meanwhile, the Hawaii County Civil Defense Agency has reported 13 coronavirus­-related deaths to date on Hawaii island, all but one connected to the veterans home.

As of Sunday, Avalon Healthcare reported that 66 residents and 28 employees of the Hilo veterans home have tested positive for COVID-19. Four of the home’s residents are hospitalized at the Hilo Medical Center, and 33 are being cared for at a designated area of the home. Another 17 residents and five employees have recovered.

U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) on Sept. 6 asked the Department of Veterans Affairs to provide Avalon with support in battling the outbreak. A team of medical experts mobilized by the VA were at the Hilo facility last week. They departed Friday after indicating that a follow-up report with recommendations would be dispatched this week.

On Saturday, Hawaii island Mayor Harry Kim expressed dissatisfaction with the timeliness of state and federal follow-up. Avalon runs the veterans home, but Kim said the state owns the property, which was constructed using state and federal funds.

“You scream out and say, ‘This is not acceptable. How can this be?’” Kim said during a rare Saturday news conference.

Kim said he told a team of state and federal officials Friday that if they were under his command, “You wouldn’t even go home. You would do whatever we can from here on this end, which is already way too late for what we should have done at the beginning.”

WHILE THE report and corrective actions are pending, Kim called for the immediate suspension of the “present administration until a review is completed,” and in the meantime wants replacement administrators to take over to “correct all the wrongs, now.”

Avalon Health Care and the state did not immediately respond to Kim’s comments.

On Friday, Schatz also called for Avalon to review and improve its infection control policies and practices at all three of its facilities in Hawaii, where COVID-19 outbreaks have occurred.

“Given that outbreaks have occurred at all three of Avalon’s facilities in Hawaii, I am alarmed that Avalon’s facilities are not able to adequately protect its residents and staff,” Schatz said in a Sept. 11 letter to Randy Kirton, Avalon’s chairman and CEO.

“Therefore, I urge you to immediately review the practices, and in particular the staffing and infection control practices, at your facilities in Hawaii and in other states to identify and resolve any deficiencies that could result in the spread of COVID-19,” Schatz continued in the letter.

Seniors who contract the COVID-19 virus are far more likely to be hospitalized or to die, especially those in long-term care facilities.

DOH reported Friday that 16 long-term care facilities on Oahu, two on Maui and three on Hawaii island, including the Yukio Okutsu State Veterans Home, had reported cases and/or exposures within the last 28 days.

The Hale Ku‘ike Pali adult residential care home on Oahu reported Sunday that an employee had tested positive. The home’s first coronavirus case was identified Saturday. The employee, who last worked Thursday, is asymptomatic and is self-isolating. All 17 residents and 38 staff in the Pali home are slated to receive a COVID-19 nasopharyngeal swab test today and will be retested in another week.

The state Department of Public Safety said Sunday that efforts to contain a cluster at the Oahu Community Correctional Center “are working,” reporting that only two more OCCC inmates had tested positive and there were no new staff cases. DPS said Sunday that there are currently 14 active cases among OCCC inmates and 33 active cases among staff. So far, 49 OCCC staff members and 278 inmates have recovered.

DPS also reported Sunday that a second deputy sheriff from Lt. Gov. Josh Green’s protective detail tested positive. On Friday it was reported that Green and a deputy sheriff from his detail had COVID-19. As of Sunday these were the only confirmed positive cases in the lieutenant governor’s office.

On his third day with COVID-19 , the so-far asymptomatic Green posted on his Facebook page, “The total active cases dropped from yesterday, which is a good sign.”

He said he was “cautiously optimistic we’re turning the corner.”

As of Sunday, 7,036 infections are considered active cases statewide, with 3,565 patients, or about 33% of those infected, now classified by health officials as “released from isolation.”

Officials counted 4,132 new tests in Sunday’s tally, with 114 positive cases representing 2.8% of the total. Of the 259,531 coronavirus tests conducted so far by state and clinical laboratories in Hawaii since the start of the outbreak, 4.1% have been positive. Of the 36,116 coronavirus surge tests so far, fewer than 1% have been positive.

On Sunday, Hawaii’s effective reproduction rate for the virus had dropped to 0.85, meaning people who test positive for coronavirus in the state will infect an average of 0.85 other people.

A rate above 1 means the virus will spread quickly. A rate below 1 means the virus will eventually stop spreading.

Hawaii’s reproduction rate Sunday was the best in the nation, outside of Texas. In early August, Hawaii’s effective reproduction rate was the nation’s worst.

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