State officials say outbreak at Big Island veterans home could have been prevented


HONOLULU (KHON2) — Governor David Ige revealed that the Yukio Okutsu State Veterans Home on the Big Island failed to implement all infection control guidance that should have been in place.

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Many have watched in disbelief as the death toll and the number of those infected continued to climb. More than three-quarters of its residents tested positive in the four weeks since the outbreak started.

Family members of those living in the home are frustrated and heartbroken to hear that the situation could have been prevented.

“I know friends there who have family members and it has been very hard to see what has happened at that veterans home. It’s clear that they did not implement all of the infection control guidance that that should be in place,” Gov. Ige said.

Gov. Ige’s response comes a week after the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs sent a team to review the facility last week.

A second team from the VA returned Thursday, Sept. 17. and Friday, Sept. 18, to implement recommendations and help prevent further spread of the virus.

The facility reported its 18th death due to COVID-19.

Avalon Healthcare said the facility had 89 residents prior to the outbreak. Now, only 60 remain.

To-date, Avalon Healthcare reported that 69 residents tested positive along with 30 staff members.

According to state Lieutenant Governor Dr. Josh Green, the situation could have been prevented.

“It has been prevented in most of our long-term care facilities. But you never know,” Lt. Gov. Green said.

He explained that once a worker tests positive in an institution where residents can’t leave, preventing spread can be challenging.

Avalon Healthcare said that their contact tracing determined that the outbreak was started by a staff member who was asymptomatic at the veterans home.

“When you’re a healthcare worker at a facility, what happens is you need to be moving the patients. It’s impossible to socially distance. A lot of times individuals, if they have Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, they can’t wear masks or won’t keep a mask on. Often, they will reach out and grab the mask of the caretaker or caregiver at the facility. I’m not trying to excuse anything, I’m just trying to explain better that it’s a really difficult job at some long-term care facilities,” Lt. Gov. Green said.

Add to that the fact that many of the residents at the veterans home had preexisting conditions making them more vulnerable.

“So the mortality rate exceeds 14 percent,” Lt. Gov. Green said. “For people who are over 80, it’s almost double that when you add underlying conditions. So you can see what happens when there’s spread in any nursing home. It could be as many as a quarter of the people that catch COVID could pass away. And I think that’s what we’re seeing a reflection of tragically in Hilo.”

“Another thing to be mindful of, and this doesn’t take the pain down at all, is that when people are older, a lot of individuals decide that they don’t want to have life-sustaining treatment,” he added.

That’s no consolation for the families of loved ones at the facility who were infected with the virus.

Mary Benevides’ father Walter Santos Sr. tested positive several weeks ago.

“Up until now, I had believed that they had followed every procedure and protocol. We’re all heartbroken that it could have and should have been prevented,” Benevides said.

Arnold Nobriga’s mother Cecilia Nobriga also caught COVID-19 at veterans home.

“I’m totally upset. Avalon should be held responsible not only for the sick but for the deaths,” Nobriga said.

A spokesperson from Avalon Healthcare said they are still waiting for the full report. But during a review on Sept. 10, the OHCA surveyor noted only one D-level deficiency (no harm, not widespread).

In a statement, Avalon Health Group said: “We are deeply saddened,” and “We appreciate (the state and federal VA) support and collaboration. We immediately began to implement their recommendations. Please know that our staff has been working tirelessly to care for our residents.”

The Department of Health did not respond to KHON2’s request for comment.

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