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Third resident of state veterans home in Hilo dies from COVID-19

  • Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald People wait in line for free COVID-19 testing Monday at Big Island Pain Center in Hilo.

A third resident of Yukio Okutsu State Veterans Home has died from COVID-19, marking the Big Island’s third virus-related fatality.

“We are deeply saddened to report that three of our beloved veterans who had recently tested positive for COVID-19 have passed away,” Avalon Health Care Group, which manages the facility, posted in an update online. “We are heartbroken over this and express our condolences to the family and friends of these residents.”

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The three deaths have been men older than the age of 80.

The facility first reported cases of COVID-19 in two employees just more than a week ago.

Ten veterans home employees and 28 residents, including the three who have died, have since tested positive for the virus.

Three residents are hospitalized at Hilo Medical Center, according to information provided by the hospital. Two were released from HMC and returned to the Hilo veterans home for continued care.

Twenty-three residents are being cared for in a specially designated area at Yukio Okutsu.

Dan Brinkman, East Hawaii Regional CEO, Hawaii Health Systems Corp., which includes HMC and the Hilo veterans home, said he thinks Yukio Okutsu did all it could to prevent the virus from entering the facility.

Although it’s possible the infection could have come in from two different sources given the virus circulating in the community, Brinkman said it’s likely the infection came from an employee.

“Employees are members of the community, and this was a community-acquired COVID case,” he said. “Unfortunately, our employees can’t live in a quarantine bubble like (veterans home) residents do.”

The first employee to test positive for the virus was discovered during random testing, Brinkman said.

“Thankfully, (they) caught it early enough,” he said, adding that if it wasn’t detected early, the whole facility could have been infected.

While it’s unfortunate the veterans home has as many cases as it does, Brinkman said he’s “pretty comfortable saying it could have been a lot worse,” and administrators are doing all they can to bring the outbreak under control.

All residents and staff were tested for COVID-19 Aug. 23-24 and retested Aug. 26-27.

An Avalon spokeswoman said the facility has received all results from Aug. 26-27, and all staff and residents are being retested again.

Brinkman said testing cycles at the veterans home will continue until everyone with COVID-19 is identified and has recovered.

“I’ve been working closely with their leadership. I think they’re doing all the right things and getting this outbreak under control,” he said.

Mayor Harry Kim, a U.S. Army medic during the Vietnam War, said he discussed the matter with Gov. David Ige on Monday.

“It is a very difficult issue for me to talk about,” he said. “The place is full of the energies of people fighting to make a place their home.”

Unfortunately, Kim said he expects case numbers associated with the veterans home will continue to rise.

“No one knows how many cases there will have been when this is all over,” he said.

As of last week, Yukio Okutsu had 86 residents and 143 staff members.

Sixteen COVID-19 patients are currently hospitalized at Hilo Medical Center, including two in the hospital’s intensive care unit and 14 in its COVID-19 unit.

None of those patients were on ventilators.

All employees and patients in the hospital’s behavioral health unit were tested after a staffer there tested positive for COVID-19. All those test results were negative.

Brinkman said the unit is in its own building, and HMC is now doing a second round of testing for the people who had direct contact with the infected employee.

If those tests return negative, Brinkman said the hospital will start taking admissions to the unit again.

Brinkman urged the community to wear masks and avoid large gatherings to slow the spread of the virus.

“… (If) everyone does those two things, I have a feeling we can manage through this just fine.”

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Reporter Michael Brestovansky contributed to this report.

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

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