Asterio “Terry” Canda, 80, had a mild stroke and was admitted on Aug. 22 into the Yukio Okutsu State Veterans Home in Hilo for speech and physical therapy.
The next day, the Hawaii island nursing home reported the first COVID-19 cases among staff. Four days later, seven residents had tested positive for the virus. By Aug. 30, two residents were dead.
The 95-bed veterans home quickly became a COVID-19 hotspot, with a total of 71 residents and 35 employees contracting the virus to date and at least 26 fatalities attributed to the outbreak.
Canda, a 25-year U.S. Army veteran who served two tours in the Korean War and also fought in Vietnam, was moved into a ward with non-COVID-19 residents. His family assumed the facility would be implementing strict coronavirus policies and procedures, according to his daughter, Honolulu resident Stephanie Lake, 49.
But the death toll continued to mount.
“At that point, our family was on red alert, (thinking) ‘Is dad basically a sitting duck there?’ These men and women, they fought in wars. For these veterans to go out this way is completely deplorable.”
The family scrambled to get their father, who had no underlying medical conditions before his stroke, out of the facility and back to his Pahoa home. Canda previously lived an active lifestyle as a fourth-degree black belt in taekwondo, teaching the martial art for years. He also regularly worked in his garden, Lake said.
Canda had tested negative for COVID-19 in late August and was briefly released from the veterans home.
On Sept. 1 he tested positive and was readmitted to the facility after developing a fever and diarrhea that continued for two weeks. He had no respiratory symptoms.
“Deaths started to increase daily then our sensitivity level started going through the roof,” Lake said, especially after another stroke victim, also at the facility for physical therapy, suddenly died after contracting the virus.
Worried family members began calling and checking in on Canda daily. They insisted that he be tested for other ailments.
“Our family became more and more alarmed about the increase of deaths there. It was really difficult for us as a family and I’m sure other families who have loved ones there because you’re not able to get access to the VA (Veterans Affairs) home,” she said. “All you can do is call and just check up on your loved ones and check in with the nurses.”
Her father had lost 20 pounds, did not like the food and said he was always thirsty and had become weaker by the day, she said.
“It was just COVID symptoms, that’s what we were told,” Lake said, adding that her 76-year-old mother, Ruth, and siblings would bring meals to the facility every day.
After testing his blood, urine and stool samples at the insistence of his family, Canda was also diagnosed with a bacterial infection known as C. difficile, which typically occurs after antibiotic use or due to poor sanitation.
“It was confirmed it was from poor sanitation. If left unchecked, it can result in death,” she said. Canda was released from the facility on Sept. 21 and is at home recovering from both infections. His family members all tested negative for COVID-19.
“When he came out … he was so emotional. On the drive home he just stared out the window. When he got to his garden and saw birds in the birdbath he started crying,” Lake said. Once his children told him the veterans death count, “that’s what really broke him,” she added.
“When a veteran would pass they would play Taps through the intercom in the home. Just little things will bring him to tears. He’s grateful for his life, obviously with what he went through.”
Lake is urging other families with loved ones there to be “extremely proactive with their care” and frequently call the care home and ask questions.
“If someone in there doesn’t have the family voice to be their advocate, what’s going to happen to them? It just breaks my heart,” she said. “By us staying on top of what was happening for him specifically and by us demanding him getting tests that were not COVID-related, we saved my father’s life.”
As the outbreak grew, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs mobilized a team of health experts earlier this month to help contain the spread of the virus, but her father didn’t notice any changes. He was alone in an isolation room and had not seen anyone come through, she said.
“It was like business as usual. They’re still sitting there with the same type of care, the same food, the same sanitation,” she said.
Health officials reported 90 new coronavirus infections statewide Monday, bringing the total since the start of the pandemic to 12,203 cases. No new deaths were reported by the state, but the Health Department has yet to officially count more than a dozen of the latest deaths at the Yukio Okutsu State Veterans Home. The state’s official death toll is 132.
There are 1,856 infections considered active statewide, with a total of 10,215 patients now classified as released from isolation, or 84% of those infected. Over the weekend, health officials significantly decreased the count of active infections after updating the number of cases released from isolation.
State government hospital administrators are preparing to take over the beleaguered veterans home from private Utah-based operator Avalon Health Care after calls for the company’s removal by Hawaii island Mayor Harry Kim. The operator has come under fire for a “ total lack of really basic infection control issues,” said John McDermott, Hawaii’s long-term care ombudsman.
“The point is that this was avoidable. You can’t prevent COVID from getting into the building, but once you know it’s in the building you can contain it,” McDermott said. “It reminds me of the band playing on the deck of the Titanic as it’s taking on water. Are you not aware that your ship is sinking? You’re not noticing that people are dying in your building? It’s just unbelievable. This really borders on criminal.”