Island’s nine care facilities implement no-visitor policies

  • Courtesy Hilo Medical Center Vicki Linter of Pahoa can no longer visit her mother at Life Care Center of Hilo now that a no visitor policy has been implemented at long-term care facilities on Hawaii Island.

  • Courtesy Hilo Medical Center Administrators and physicians from East Hawaii long-term care facilities gathered Thursday afternoon at Hilo Medical Center to discuss new no visitor policies implemented at such facilities across the island in response to the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak. From left are Dr. Gary Johnson, in-house physician, Life Care Center of Hilo; Shelly-Ann Kaui Chartrand, nursing home administrator, Hilo Medical Center's Extended Care Facility; Mark Mann, executive director, Life Care Center of Hilo; Tammy H. Silva, administrator, Legacy Hilo Rehabilitation and Nursing Center; Dr. Stefan Harmeling, in-house physician, Legacy Hilo; David Pettijohn, administrator, Yukio Okutsu State Veterans Home; and Gail Kaho`okele, administrator, Hale Anuenue Restorative Care Center. Joining via Zoom are Merilyn Harris, administrator, Ka`u Hospital and Rural Health Clinic; and Denise Mackey, administrator, Hale Ho`ola Hamakua.

Hawaii Island’s long-term nursing and care facilities have implemented unified no-visitor policies in light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Seniors, especially those who have underlying health conditions, are at a greater risk for COVID-19, which has infected more than 128,000 people since it was first detected in China in late December.

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Long-term care facilities that have instituted the no-visitation policy include Hale Anuenue, Hale Ho‘ola Hamakua, Hilo Medical Center’s Extended Care Facility, Ka‘u Hospital, Kohala Hospital, Legacy Hilo Rehabilitation and Nursing Center, Life Care Center of Hilo, Life Care Center of Kona and Yukio Okutsu State Veterans Home.

Administrators and physicians from East Hawaii facilities gathered Thursday afternoon at Hilo Medical Center to discuss the new restrictions.

“I think we’re all aware of what’s happening around the nation with COVID-19, and we’re really fortunate at this point that we have very few (positive cases) here in the state of Hawaii,” said Stefan Harmeling, in-house physician at Legacy Hilo. “We decided to get together with our different organizations to really make sure that we limit our potential to bring COVID-19 into Hawaii County.

“Being at long-term care facilities with older residents who have different medical issues, we understand that they’d be at increasing risk if they got exposed to it. So we’re really trying to take very early preventative measures so we don’t face what a lot of other facilities are dealing with right now.”

“And we’ve all unanimously agreed with that decision” to restrict visitation, said Mark Mann, executive director of Life Care Center of Hilo.

Gary Johnson, in-house physician at Life Care Center of Hilo, said that as difficult it is knowing the importance of ohana in Hawaii and how devastating the no-visitation decision might be for families, “we feel that for the protection of our residents in the community that it’s an unfortunate decision, but it’s the best decision at this time for protection.”

Merilyn Harris, administrator of Ka‘u Hospital and Rural Health Clinic, said there’s been concern about the emotional impact to residents, which is why administrators have been talking to families to determine if there are other means of communication — like video -calling, email or telephone — that could be arranged.

“I think each of us are developing an individual plan with each resident as to how can we keep them connected and reassure them that they’re not forgotten,” she said.

Denise Mackey, administrator, Hale Ho‘ola Hamakua, said these steps are all about protecting residents and keeping people safe, “and I think most of the families that we call fully expected us to actually be calling today. That’s what most of them said.”

Yukio Okutsu Administrator David Pettijohn said there may be some exceptions for individuals who are terminally ill, but those small groups of individuals would have to be screened.

The collaboration amongst the care facilities is unprecedented.

Harmeling has been practicing in Hawaii for 15 years and said he has never seen different health care facilities come together independently to make a decision like this — a sentiment echoed by Johnson, who has been a practicing physician in the state for more than 30 years.

“And this is awesome, this could be a spark of something really great to improve health care, because we already have a 40% deficit of medical providers on this island,” Harmeling said. “If we continue to work together with something like this and get through this COVID-19, there’s no telling what we couldn’t accomplish.”

Vicki Linter of Pahoa generally visits her 83-year-old mother four times a week at Life Care Center of Hilo.

Her mother, who has multiple sclerosis, has lived there for 11 years.

Wednesday isn’t Linter’s usual day to visit, but said she was in town when she heard from a friend who said visitation at the area’s medical centers might be restricted.

“And so I just stopped what I was doing and went straight to Life Care,” she said. “As I was doing the normal screening to go in and visit, they told me that they had just found out within the last couple of hours that they were going to have to start calling families (about the visitor restriction).”

Linter said her first reaction was “very self-centered, and I basically started crying because just thinking about not being able to visit my mom,” Linter said. “I’m her person; I’m the one who goes all the time. But my second thought, of course, was for the greater good. And I know I want all those folks up there protected, and we got to take care of them and the health care workers that work up there. I’m worried about them just as much.”

Linter said she “totally supports” the no-visitor measures taken.

“I have to,” she said. “They take great care of my mother, and I trust them to know what’s best.”

Because of her age, Linter’s mother is at a high risk for COVID-19, “and her disability probably makes her even more vulnerable.”

Since the outbreak began, Linter said she’s been worried about her mother, but over the last few days, she started worrying more about friends and other family members.

“I actually started thinking, ‘boy, I should be thinking about myself. I should be worried for me. I’m in that age group,’” she said. “But I’m just worried about friends and neighbors, everything changing so much, not being able to do what you’re used to doing … .”

She encouraged other families facing visitor bans to be patient.

“Try to understand that the facility is doing what they think is best of our folks,” Linter said.

It’s difficult, though, not knowing how long the restrictions will be in place.

“If someone said you can’t come for a week or a month, we could live with that, we would figure it out,” Linter said. “But when it’s so open ended, and of course that’s how it has to be, … but that is the hard part.”

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Hale Ho‘ola Hamakua and Ka‘u Hospital are critical access hospitals, and other services provided at those locations are still available. The no visitation policy is only for long-term care.

Email Stephanie Salmons at ssalmons@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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