The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has dispatched a team of infection control experts, nurses and other health care professionals to assist with the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak at Yukio Okutsu State Veterans Home.
The move comes less than a week after U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz made an urgent request to the VA for assistance.
“The outbreak we are seeing at the state veterans home is heartbreaking,” Schatz wrote in a Sept. 6 letter to Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie.
“… It is clear that we are in a race against time and must commit as many resources as possible (to) stop the spread of this virus before more veterans and staff become sick and die,” continued the Hawaii Democrat. “While I appreciate the support that the VA Pacific Island Health Care System in Honolulu has provided, including with the delivery of personal protective equipment, VA can and must do more to reduce the risk to and suffering of the veterans and caregivers in the state home.”
As of Friday afternoon, 66 of the veterans home’s 72 residents and 27 employees had tested positive for the coronavirus since late August. Of those, 17 residents and five employees have recovered, and 35 are being cared for in an isolated COVID-19 unit at the facility.
As of Friday, four were hospitalized at Hilo Medical Center, and 10 residents have died.
In a separate letter also sent Sept. 6, Schatz urged Gov. David Ige to request immediate assistance from the VA to stop the outbreak.
“It is increasingly clear to me that the state home is understaffed and ill equipped to stop this outbreak on its own,” he wrote to Ige. “Moreover, I am concerned that the state and county have been too slow to respond to the crisis with the urgency that it demands, including with a request for more federal assistance and health care personnel.”
According to a news release from Schatz’s office, experts from the VA will conduct an on-site assessment for infection control issues. The goal is to formulate recommendations for interventions, processes and procedures to address an outbreak of the virus.
The team is expected to consist of an infectious disease physician, a facilities engineer who understands environmental air flow and air conditioning systems, an infectious disease nurse specialist with expertise in running COVID-19 units, a safety officer, industrial hygienist and nurse manager.
“More help is on the way,” Schatz said in the news release Friday. “This medical team will be a big help in containing the outbreak happening on the Big Island. My staff and I will continue working with the VA and state and local officials to make sure we are utilizing all the federal help that’s available.”
Follow-up questions emailed to Schatz’s spokesman were not returned as of press time Friday.
“The health and safety of our residents is our top priority, period,” said Allison Griffiths, a spokeswoman for Avalon Health Care Group, which manages the Hilo veterans home, in an email to the Tribune-Herald. “That is what our dedicated caregivers are focused on, all day, every day. We look forward to working collaboratively with Senator Schatz to ensure our frontline heroes have the resources they need — specifically novel coronavirus testing and personal protective equipment, which the industry has been asking for since the outset of the pandemic — and staffing support to continue saving lives. These are important and serious issues, and we look forward to continuing to work with our representatives in the nation’s capital to address.”
A state review into the facility’s outbreak response also continued Friday.
Griffiths previously confirmed that a physician from the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency was at the veterans home all day Wednesday and Mayor Harry Kim on Thursday said the doctor was expected to return Friday to continue the review.
Kim said he met with representatives from HI-EMA and the VA on Friday.
Kim told them that any further delays in addressing issues found in the reviews “is not acceptable” and recommended an “overseer” be present to make sure “any corrections that can be made are made now …”
While he didn’t elaborate further about issues identified in the review, Kim said one area that was identified, and is currently being addressed, is the testing process.
A two-day unannounced inspection on compliance with state regulation, conducted by the state Department of Health Office of Health Care Assurance, was also completed this week, the state DOH confirmed Thursday.
That inspection report should be available next week.
Email Stephanie Salmons at firstname.lastname@example.org.