A federal team from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs specializing in infection control and safety will arrive today at the Yukio Okutsu State Veterans Home in Hilo to put an end to a major COVID-19 outbreak resulting in 15 deaths.
The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs is deploying 19 clinical and administrative personnel in nursing, housekeeping, food service and other areas for up to six weeks (today to Oct. 28) to support critical medical care, infection control, engineering and other urgent staffing needs for the beleaguered state veteran’s home.
Another death was recorded Wednesday among residents of the Hilo facility due to the extensive COVID-19 outbreak. Hawaii County Civil Defense reported 15 deaths at the home, which has been working desperately to contain the explosion of infections since it was first detected in late August. The deaths, however, have not all been tallied yet by the state Health Department due to a verification process.
“Obviously we’re deeply saddened to lose another one of our beloved veterans to this horrible, devastating virus,” said Allison Griffiths, spokeswoman for the home’s manager, Avalon Health Care, “and we express our sincere condolences to the family and friends of the resident, along with our staff members, who view all our residents as an extension of their family.”
Since the first coronavirus death at the home was reported on Aug. 29, the numbers of infections and fatalities have grown swiftly, prompting U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz to request help from the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs.
Griffiths said so far a physician from Hawaii Emergency Management Agency is at the home, along with other staff and experts sent from the U.S. mainland by Avalon, based in Salt Lake City.
Schatz also has urged Avalon to review and improve its infection control practices at all three of its nursing homes in Hawaii, including at Avalon Care Center and Hale Nani Rehabilitation &Nursing Center in Honolulu, where there also have been outbreaks.
At the request of Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim, a state health team also conducted a review of the response to the outbreak.
“The heartbreak there is monumental of course. This is what sadly we’ve seen all across the country when institutions of any kind have outbreaks — they spread rapidly throughout the institution because of the close proximity of people,” said Lt. Gov. Josh Green, citing a preliminary report. “The challenge of course is that we see fatalities at a higher rate because of the age of the individuals in question that got sick — some of them died — they’re very old. Almost all of them had pretty severe underlying conditions.”
A team deployed to the Veterans State Home on Sept. 11 conducted a comprehensive infection control assessment, said Amy Rohlfs, spokeswoman for the VA Pacific Islands Health Care System. The team assessed engineering controls, air exchange, the use of personal protective equipment, infection control practices, and “other factors that could contribute to safe resident care.” The report was completed within 24 hours and recommendations have been provided to the state and nursing home, she said.
The state also has done its own top-to-bottom review of procedures and policies, Gov. David Ige said at a news conference Wednesday. The report from an unannounced inspection conducted last week by state health inspectors is being finalized this week, the DOH said.
In its latest update posted online, the Veterans Home administration said 68 residents have tested positive for COVID-19.
The administration also said a total of 30 staff members have tested positive and are self-isolating at home. Five of those 30 have recovered.
Staff and residents have gone through several rounds of testing, with the last one on Tuesday.
Based on contact tracing, Avalon says it believes the coronavirus entered the home through an asymptomatic staff member in late August, as well as through a resident exposed at an outside dialysis appointment.
“Please know that our staff has been working tirelessly to care for our residents,” Avalon said on its website. “Being in the spotlight and so heavily criticized by the media and public officials has certainly been tough on all of us. We greatly appreciate the love and Aloha we have received from many of our family members and friends. COVID-19 has, unfortunately, hit the nation’s nursing homes the hardest as we care for the most vulnerable among us in a communal setting, which is supposed to be homelike and where residents retain rights and dignity.”