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Hilo veterans home administration needs to be replaced, Mayor Harry Kim says

Hawaii island Mayor Harry Kim renewed calls Wednesday for the immediate suspension of the administration of the Yukio Okutsu State Veterans Home, where he said documented shortcomings have resulted in too many COVID-19 deaths.

Kim first made the request in mid-September well before the state’s release on Monday of two assessments from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency. The Department of Health’s Office of Health Care Assurance still hasn’t released its own report after conducting an unannounced inspection of the facility’s infection control measures required by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

A VA tiger team was dispatched on Sept. 18 to help the center stop the spread, but Kim said Wednesday during an interview with the Star-Advertiser that further action is warranted.

“I wrote a letter to Gov. Ige on Sept. 19 and said, ‘Immediate removal of the administration must be done and can be replaced by this tiger team until a permanent solution is found.’”

The governor told him that he would respond by Wednesday, Kim said. Ige’s spokeswomen didn’t return a request for comment.

But Allison Griffiths, spokeswoman for veterans home’s operator, Avalon Health Care in Salt Lake City, said there is no need for a change in administration.

“The administration at the facility has been working tirelessly in the fight against this historic pandemic. Weeks ago, Avalon regional leadership arrived in Hilo to assist the local team with administrative and clinical functions at the facility,” she wrote in an email. “We have no reason to think a change in administration would be beneficial to anyone at this stage.”

Kim said he is frustrated that his request has gone unanswered. He also said that he remains dissatisfied with the timeliness of the state’s follow-up and oversight. Avalon is under a state contract to run the veterans home, which was constructed using state and federal funds.

“All this time, the wrongs are still going on and Lord knows the increase in fatalities,” he said.

Kim emphasized the need for urgency against the backdrop of yet another COVID-19 fatality at the veterans home. On Wednesday, Hawaii County Civil Defense Agency reported another death, which pushed Hawaii County’s pandemic death toll to 28.

Health officials have yet to count the latest deaths at the Hilo veterans home, which accounts for 26 of Hawaii County’s coronavirus deaths. At least 20 deaths are still pending verification and classification.

On Wednesday, DOH reported two new COVID-19 deaths on Oahu — a man in his 80s and a woman in her 70s with underlying medical conditions — and 168 new coronavirus infections statewide, bringing the totals since the start of the pandemic to 122 fatalities and 11,689 cases.

Kim, who helped get the veterans home located in Hilo, said more needs to be done to right what he calls “a betrayal of trust.”

“A promise was made and given to Hilo that we will develop a home there that you could entrust your loved one to be there,” he said.

The veterans home opened in November 2007 as the state’s first nursing home for 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.

Kim said conditions at the home, where a coronavirus outbreak started about Aug. 22, were already a huge concern by the later part of August and early September.

“The growing concern and plea to the state picked up in the first week of September because of the first fatality in the later part of August. It ramped up again and we were demanding for them to come and review what was going on,” Kim said.

Kim said it wasn’t until late into the second week of September that any teams were set to review the home and then they left without ensuring corrective action was immediately taken.

“I told them that was ‘unacceptable,’ ” Kim said. “I said, ‘After all this time, you are going to go back. You found all of these things and you are going to leave it for them to implement and you’ll come back and check with them.’”

When the VA team sent seven medical and health care experts to visit the veterans home on Sept. 11, 10 residents had died from coronavirus and another 35 were positive. By Monday when the state had released the first two of three reports, the count of COVID-19 cases at the veterans home had risen to 70 residents and 32 employees and there had been 24 deaths.

“It’s really unfortunate. I’m saddened to hear that, especially since every day there’s another person dying,” said the son of a 95-year-old veteran who was among the first to die in August after testing positive for the virus there. He asked not to be identified so that his family could grieve privately. “The sad part about it is he had to die alone. We hadn’t seen him in person since the end of February when they locked down the facility. It’s tragic, but it’s one of the things we’re dealing with until we find some cure or vaccine.”

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