VA investigation underway at Hilo veterans home

  • KELSEY WALLING/Tribune-Herald file photo Eighteen residents of the Yukio Okutsu State Veterans Home have died because of COVID-19.

Eighteen residents have died of COVID-19 at Yukio Okutsu State Veterans Home, where a team from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs arrived Friday to investigate the facility.

Hilo Medical Center reported Friday afternoon that 69 residents at the Veterans Home have tested positive for the coronavirus, 28 of whom are receiving care in the facility’s designated COVID unit. Four additional residents are hospitalized, and 19 have recovered.

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Two Yukio Okutsu residents died of COVID-19 on Friday. The 18 deaths at the veterans home account for all but one of the deaths on the Big Island so far.

The state Department of Health on Friday officially added 12 of the veterans home deaths to the state’s total death count, which is now at 120. However, the state has only officially confirmed 15 Yukio Okutsu deaths so far.

One other death, that of a septuagenarian Oahu man, was reported Friday.

Three separate assessments of the veterans home outbreak are underway — one by the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, another by the DOH Office of Health Care Assurance and a third by the VA, which began its work Friday.

VA representatives could not provide specifics about what the team will do at the veterans home. However, Dorene Sommers, VA associate director of patient services and leader of the team, said via email that the team will “reassess the situation where they are currently, where we need to go moving forward to implement some the best practices and to improve how things are currently.”

Sommers added that “our goal is to keep both the veterans and the staff safe by just increasing all the safety measures of hand washing, wearing appropriate personal protective equipment,” and that success will only be declared “when all our veterans and staff are safe.”

The veterans home has a history of substandard health standards. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services gave Yukio Okutsu a health inspection rating of one star out of five.

According to records from a 2018 CMS inspection, several Yukio Okutsu residents were found to have left the veterans home without supervision, including one case where a wheelchair-bound resident was found 3 miles from the facility before any staff realized the resident was missing.

Other health violations between 2018 and 2019 include improperly restraining residents who did not require restraint, failing to adequately supervise residents showering, serving expired food, allowing a resident to fall off a bed and break a hip, incidents where residents were transported via wheelchair improperly or moved in such a way to cause minor injury and one case where medical equipment was improperly sanitized and left with an unknown “clear/yellow liquid” inside.

The veterans home has been fined twice since 2018 for such violations, paying $20,875 in 2018 and $8,957 in 2019.

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“I think it’s going to be a much better place now,” said Hawaii County Civil Defense Administrator Talmadge Magno on Friday. “(The VA team) is going to be looking at the whole operation and making adjustments. I think it’s going to be good with all the scrutiny.”

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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