Mayor Harry Kim said a team from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs will arrive later this week to investigate the situation at Yukio Okutsu State Veterans Home and make changes to better manage a deadly COVID-19 outbreak there.
“This is a major team, and I’m very, very glad they’re coming,” Kim said Monday. “I just wish we had them two weeks ago.”
The team, Kim said, will be headed by Dorene Sommers, VA associate director of patient care services.
The VA team of more than 20 health care professionals is being dispatched at the behest of U.S. Senator Brian Schatz, a Hawaii Democrat. Schatz made an urgent request last week as the numbers of COVID-19 positive tests among residents and staff at the veterans home continued to rise, as well as fatalities among residents.
A two-day unannounced inspection of the Hilo facility, conducted by the state Department of Health Office of Health Care Assurance, was completed last week, the DOH confirmed Thursday. The inspection report should be available this week.
Hawaii County Civil Defense on Monday reported two additional deaths at the veterans home, bringing the total of coronavirus-related deaths in the facility to 12.
Schatz also sent a letter to Charles “Randy” Kirton, chairman of Avalon Health Care Services, a private company contracted by the state to manage the veterans home. Avalon also manages Avalon Care-Honolulu and Hale Nani Rehabilitation &Nursing Center on Oahu. Both of those facilities also have recorded COVID-19 cases.
Schatz noted the outbreaks at all three Avalon facilities, and wrote he is “alarmed that Avalon’s facilities are not able to adequately protect its residents and staff.”
He described the outbreak at Yukio Okutsu as “tragic.”
“Therefore, I urge you to immediately review the practices, and in particular the staffing and infection control practices, at your facilities in Hawaii and in other states to identify and resolve any deficiencies that could result in the spread of COVID-19. Residents of nursing homes are some of the most vulnerable to COVID-19, and each Avalon facility needs to be sufficiently prepared to keep its residents and staff safe during the pandemic,” Schatz wrote.
Kim said he has been frustrated by the response to the Yukio Okutsu outbreak, saying that, if he were in charge, he would have suspended the staff and administration of Avalon. A former Army medic during the Vietnam War, Kim called a rare media conference on Saturday, in which he described the conditions surrounding the veterans home as “absolutely not acceptable.”
“There should have already been people up there trying to correct the wrongs that was already pointed out,” Kim said. “… I’m not speaking behind anybody’s back. I don’t like grandstanding. I don’t even like this press conference. But we made a promise, and we did not keep it.”
Avalon released a statement in apparent response to Schatz’s letter and Kim’s press conference.
“We continue to work closely with representatives from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and state and local health officials who have applicable expertise to bring to bear as we work together to save lives. Our residents are our one and only priority. We do not have the luxury of time to engage in any fights other than beating this virus. That is where our focus will remain,” the statement said, in part.
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