KCH restricts inpatient visitation indefinitely in wake of scabies outbreak

  • Visitors leave Kona Community Hospital on Friday after cancelation of patient room visit due to a scabies outbreak. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)
  • A sign canceling patient room visits is posted on the entrance to Kona Community Hospital on Friday. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

KAILUA-KONA — After attempting to manage a scabies outbreak for nearly three weeks, Kona Community Hospital announced Thursday that visitation to all its patient care units has been restricted indefinitely.

Despite struggles getting a handle on the outbreak, KCH said in a press release that the hospital will remain open.

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“The hospital is continuing to admit and treat patients, and all outpatient services remain open,” the release read.

Hospital staff informed patients and their loved ones of the decision to restrict visitation Thursday, and all staff members continue to receive scabies treatment whether they’ve shown symptoms or not.

Preventive measures in combination with limited contact is the hospital’s strategy to deal with the highly infectious disease caused by mites that burrow under the skin and lay their eggs.

“This will help contain and limit the potential for exposure by patients and staff,” Joy Bjornberg, Interim Chief Nurse, said in the release.

In a story by West Hawaii Today on Nov. 26, an anonymous source familiar with the situation inside the hospital said more than 50 staff members had been diagnosed with scabies. Judy Donovan, head of marketing and strategic planning at KCH, said the hospital employs roughly 450 people.

The source added that the hospital’s Intensive Care Unit suffered from staff shortages, as the majority of employees in that department had to miss work time due to infection.

Exact numbers of how many people have been infected since Nov. 26, and how many have come down with scabies overall since the hospital confirmed the outbreak on Nov. 19, were not provided in the press release — the primary mode of communication KCH has employed since the story broke.

However, Director of Infection Prevention and Employee Health at KCH Lisa Downing suspected then that more staff, and possibly patients, would present with the disease.

“We’re still in the middle … of the outbreak, so it’s definitely not over yet,” Downing told WHT late last month.

She was optimistic in the November interview that KCH was on the other side of the worst of the outbreak.

But measures employed Thursday to restrict outside access to inpatients indefinitely indicate that proved not to be the case.

“We are hopeful we’re not going to see another resurgence,” Downing told WHT in November.

An initial press release regarding the indefinite restrictions was issued Thursday evening and noted by several media outlets around the state. West Hawaii Today, which broke the initial story nearly two weeks ago, did not receive Thursday’s release from KCH.

After inquiries from WHT, KCH sent the release shortly before noon on Friday. Asked why WHT was excluded from Thursday’s emailing, Donovan said she couldn’t say with certainty.

“I’m not sure, but it seems my Outlook Media contact list is odd because I’ve been updating addresses on it all day as a result of the yesterday’s Media Advisory,” she wrote to West Hawaii Today.

Friday’s release states scabies is not a threat to public health, but a common and highly contagious infection.

It most frequently spreads by way of prolonged, skin-to-skin contact, although it can spread through clothing, towels or bedding. It typically presents as a pimple-like rash accompanied by intense itching.

“Our surveillance of this situation will be ongoing for up to 8 weeks,” Downing said in the release.

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“The hospital’s control protocols are aligned with CDC recommendations for controlling and containing a scabies outbreak. The Hawaii Department of Health has also provided support.”

Email Max Dible at mdible@westhawaiitoday.com.