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Few in Hawaii spared the far-reaching consequences of the coronavirus pandemic

  • JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                COVID-19 survivor Coby Torda holds his cat, Luna, at his family’s residence on Saturday in Ewa Beach.

    JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARADVERTISER.COM

    COVID-19 survivor Coby Torda holds his cat, Luna, at his family’s residence on Saturday in Ewa Beach.

  • JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                COVID-19 survivor Coby Torda, left, and husband Scotty Staples walk their dogs, Sweetie and Bruno, in Ewa Beach. Torda spent 69 days at Kaiser Permanente’s Moanalua Medical Center after becoming ill with the virus in March.

    JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARADVERTISER.COM

    COVID-19 survivor Coby Torda, left, and husband Scotty Staples walk their dogs, Sweetie and Bruno, in Ewa Beach. Torda spent 69 days at Kaiser Permanente’s Moanalua Medical Center after becoming ill with the virus in March.

Coby Torda still walks his dogs and works out at the gym just as he did before he became one of Hawaii’s first confirmed cases of COVID-19, but not without a portable oxygen concentrator.

The Ewa Beach resident’s lungs were permanently damaged by the coronavirus that has sickened 27,559 and caused 439 deaths statewide, and he still suffers from shortness of breath, fatigue and occasional bouts of anxiety.

Nearly a year since he first fell ill, Torda continues to work on recovering his health.

“I’m doing really good, I feel fine. It took a while to get to where I am now, but I’m really happy and grateful to be here,” he said.

COVID-19 was just emerging as a public- health threat in Hawaii when Torda started experiencing flu-like symptoms after coming home from work as a bartender at a Waikiki club March 9. He tried over-the-counter medicines, but his condition worsened, with fevers as high as 104 degrees.

Torda went to a hospital for help but was told his symptoms weren’t severe enough, and he wasn’t tested for the coronavirus before being sent home.

“I had no idea I had it,” he said. “Of course, the paranoia set in a soon as I started seeing it on TV when it got to (Hawaii). Obviously, the worst of my fears became a reality.”

By March 20 Torda was in extreme respiratory distress. He was admitted the next day to Kaiser Permanente’s Moanalua Medical Center, where he spent the next 69 days fighting the viral infection, much of that time on a ventilator in the intensive care unit.

Due to infection protocols, his family was unable to visit him in the hospital. Torda’s husband of five years, Scotty Staples, said he would call three or four times a day for updates, grilling hospital staff on even the slightest changes in his condition, appearance or activity.

Staples said Torda’s first three weeks in the ICU were “touch and go,” and for most of the 69 days, “he was completely out of it. He had no idea what was going on; he basically went into a coma, and when he awoke it was a totally different world. Almost everything had changed.”

Torda was discharged from the hospital May 29, but his ordeal was far from over.

“I was in a wheelchair and needed assistance to walk. I had to learn how to walk again; my body pretty much withered away,” said Torda, who had lost almost 70 pounds.

He and Staples, who live with Torda’s parents and grandmother, have patiently rebuilt much of their former life as Torda’s health has improved. He is back in the gym lifting weights and logging 20 to 30 minutes of cardio work. When they walk their dogs, Sweetie and Bruno, “all of the neighbors come out of their houses and wave,” Staples said.

“We’re slowly getting there,” said Torda, who’s also taken up a new hobby, couponing. “It’s nice to get to spend time with my family. I’m never taking that for granted.”

He’s also hoping to return to work for his former employer once the Waikiki club completes renovations and reopens.

Staples called the events of the past year “surreal.”

“It’s been quite crazy when you think how much has changed in the last year, basically, and we would never have guessed anything like this would have happened to us,” he said. “We are in a much different place than we were. But we’re trying to look at the positives, if there are any.”

Staples paused. “But there are, actually,” he added. “I guess almost losing each other brought us a lot closer because now we basically don’t leave each other’s side. We were so close to losing each other.”

Having experienced firsthand the devastating effects of COVID-19, Torda had a message for those still pushing against public-health measures.

“We’ve come this far, and we were just promoted to Tier 3 (of the city’s recovery plan) because we’re continuing to do social distancing, washing our hands, wearing our masks. Why stop now? We might as well just continue doing it, and hopefully we’ll be back to normal,” he said.

Unemployed but not idle

Peter Yee hasn’t worked since March 21, when he was furloughed from his job as a Hertz rental car agent at Kahului Airport, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t been busy.

Yee, who is in his 60s, has been spending 12 to 15 hours a day moderating a Facebook group for Hawaii residents who also lost their jobs and need help navigating the state’s unemployment system. When he joined the Hawaii Unemployment Updates & Support Group, there were only 800 members; now there are more than 25,000.

“I started compiling a database and then created by own FAQs,” he said. “My fingers never stopped. There’s such a lack of information.”

Yee, who lives in Waiehu Terrace, had to wait five weeks for his first unemployment check and continued receiving benefits until late September. After a 10-week gap, he began receiving Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation payments before Christmas. When he recently spoke to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, he was waiting for the second round of PEUC payments for 11 weeks of benefits retroactive to Jan. 2.

Yee said he was fortunate to qualify for the maximum $648 weekly benefit in addition to any “plus up” payments, but that is hardly a living wage on Maui. So he’s had to tap into his savings.

“Because I’m older, I learned the lesson to always keep six months in reserve for cash flow,” he said.

Although Hertz, whose employees are represented by the Teamsters union, continues to operate on Maui, Yee said he hasn’t been called back to work yet because of his low seniority. The job pays well, better than most people realize, he said, so Yee hasn’t looked for other employment in the meantime.

“We want to go back. Choice jobs in the $30- an-hour level are not really out there, especially in sales,” he said. “And on Maui unemployment is even worse.”

Yee, who said he tends to be pessimistic about a rebound in Hawaii’s visitor industry, sees the public response to the vaccine rollout as a good sign that tourism could recover in the second half of year and he’ll once again be back at work.

Committed to caring

As flu season was winding down in March 2020, the medical intensive care unit at The Queen’s Medical Center was still caring for flu and pneumonia patients with the same symptoms as the new virus that was taking hold in Hawaii.

Registered nurse Deborah Lichota, who has been at Queen’s for 15 years, said the ICU staff knew their floor would be affected the most by the coming health crisis. She’d read about major disease outbreaks before, but “I never imagined having to care for patients in a pandemic.”

“I had been deployed in a war zone, and I will still say this has by far been the most challenging type of nursing I’ve ever done,” Lichota said. “There were times when I thought I don’t know how much longer I can do this but then realize it’s not about me, that somebody else needs me — not just me, but all of us: nurses, doctors, respiratory therapists, nurse aides, everybody who has been involved in care.”

Outside of work, Lichota was concerned about bringing the coronavirus home to members of her extended family. She kept her laundry separate from theirs and tried to maintain her distance. She carefully planned her activities to avoid crowds, and when her mother returned from an extended mainland trip, Lichota waited three weeks before seeing her.

“I actually asked her to stay away for a little bit longer because we had such a rise in cases so quickly. I was really concerned about her health because she’s a senior citizen, ” she said. “I think many nurses and anyone involved with the care, we tried to take all those extra precautions as much as we could to make sure we weren’t passing anything on inadvertently to our loved ones.”

Both Lichota and her mother are now vaccinated but still wear masks and stay at least 6 feet apart when together.

Lichota also felt compelled to sever ties with friends and family members who downplayed the threat of COVID-19.

“Unfortunately, there are naysayers out there who go against everything we do, and so that becomes really hard,” she said. “It’s very hard to convince people of something when it may not affect them directly. We are living in an environment and in a society when there’s a self-focus rather than a group focus, and that becomes challenging when what I do is more of a group focus.”

As a desperate public has turned to health care professionals for answers to ending the pandemic and for help in treating the sick, Lichota said “there’s been more expectations of us as health care providers and as healers, and being there.”

She recently shared some of her experiences with Kapiolani Community College nursing students, reaffirming her commitment to nursing.

“It’s definitely a choice I would make again.”

Learning to adapt

Waikiki Elementary School teacher Lory Peroff met her fourth grade students for the first time in person Feb. 16 — almost a year after the COVID-19 pandemic forced Hawaii’s public schools to switch to remote instruction.

“I think a lot of good things did happen with online learning — learning occurred — but on a human level it just felt really nice to have little people in the classroom again and to not be sitting behind screens and to be outside together and read a book together,” she said.

Peroff, 42, said it was “a big shock” when on-campus instruction was abruptly halted in March 2020. “Nobody really had any answers,” she said. “It was not defined very clearly at the beginning, and teachers supported students in the best way they knew how.”

At the time, Peroff said, she always kept in mind the challenges her students may be facing at home, such as whether their parents were working, whether families had enough devices and technical support for online learning, and whether any family members were ill from the coronavirus.

A mother of two girls ages 9 and 7, Peroff faced some of the same challenges as other parents suddenly thrust into the role of managing their offspring’s schooling. She said she was fortunate to have the support of her husband, who was working from their home in Palolo.

“If he wasn’t home, I don’t know what I would have done,” she said.

Also critical was the support from Waikiki Elementary administrators who were flexible in accommodating staff needs, according to Peroff.

Looking back over the past year, Peroff said she’s “definitely of two minds” when it comes to online instruction. Although physically distant, she often met one-on-one with her students while sharing virtual views of each other’s homes. Peroff said there also was more communication with parents, and in some cases she even got to meet her students’ pets.

“I felt like I got to know them really, really well online. The online way of learning provided a lot of opportunities for individual checks and individualized education, which is a little trickier when physically managing bodies,” she said.

Her 20 students now attend class on campus on a hybrid basis, with half the group present on Mondays and Tuesdays, the other half on Wednesdays and Thursdays, and the entire class convening online on Fridays.

“It’s not perfect but it wasn’t perfect before this,” Peroff said, “and it’s really a good time to examine what we mean by education. It doesn’t have to mean going to a school building all day.”

Failure not an option

“I am going to survive,” proclaimed Jerry Vigil, 79, who has owned the Emperor’s Emporium in Koloa, Kauai, for 28 years and witnessed one after another of his fellow merchants shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

With the collapse of tourism and Kauai’s tight travel restrictions — the strictest among Hawaii’s four major counties — Vigil’s shop rang up only $2,000 in sales of clothing, knickknacks and other items in December, compared with the same month in 2019 when he hit $60,000.

He said Old Koloa Town property owner The Beall Corp. has been “incredibly supportive” of his business and other tenants, but many just couldn’t make it. During the lean months of 2020, Vigil let his few employees go, reduced store hours, suspended orders for all but his most popular items and scraped by on his Social Security income.

“I have held on by my fingernails. I have had to dig deep into some of my own money, but I come to work every day because I like to work,” he said.

After a year of hardship, Vigil is doing more than just surviving. The economic crash inspired him to move up the launch of a website to take online orders, and he is going ahead with pre-pandemic plans to relocate to the new Koloa Village mixed-use development two blocks from his current site. Both the website and his new store should be open by July, he said.

Meanwhile, Vigil received his first dose of COVID-19 vaccine and is getting married for a third time this summer.

“Nobody said just because things are difficult you shouldn’t continue,” he said. “I did what I needed to do to survive. If I hold on long enough, I think we’ll see in May and June business coming back enough to start to have the beginning of normal business.”

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