Challenges remain in response to Life Care Center COVID outbreak

  • KELSEY WALLING/Tribune-Herald A sign expresses gratitude to employees at the Life Care Center in Hilo on Wednesday. Homemade signs have been placed around the building to support employees and residents.

Although an extensive COVID-19 response plan has been in place at Life Care Center of Hilo since the early days of the pandemic, staff and administrators are still working to contain an outbreak of the novel coronavirus.

“We’re taking it one step, one hour, one day at a time,” Administrator Mark Mann told the Tribune-Herald on Wednesday. “(As) we have seen, it can change quickly.”

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“I think in the sense of managing the people who have the infection and knowing what to do, we do have that part of it under control,” said in-house physician Gary Johnson.

Patients and staff are tested for the virus twice a week, but if someone exhibits symptoms between tests, a rapid antigen test is completed, the results of which are available in 15 minutes.

If a patient is positive, they’re moved into a “red zone,” where the known COVID-positive patients are, and a follow-up test is performed to confirm the results.

In May, the facility established a COVID-19 unit divided into zones based on severity: red zone for those who are COVID-positive, yellow for those under investigation and green for those being monitored, Johnson previously told the Tribune-Herald.

Although some response logistics have long been planned, there are still challenges in responding to the outbreak.

According to Mann, Life Care Center has two special care units for individuals with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia who are active and often wander within the secured units.

Those units, which house roughly 70 residents, pose a big challenge in managing COVID-19, Mann said.

There’s no way to confine people with dementia, he said, but those units are isolated as much as possible.

Johnson said it also is difficult to get patients with dementia to wear masks.

According to Mann, COVID-19 cases have been reported in one of those secure units.

“Because of the nature of patients there wandering, we created a specific ‘red zone’ (in the unit) with patients who have tested positive, so we can keep them isolated from other patients … ,” Johnson said.

Although the COVID-positive patients have been separated, Mann said because of the incubation period of the virus, the facility might have positive cases within the unit.

Life Care Center’s first case of COVID-19 was reported in an employee in early September.

The first resident tested positive for the virus Sept. 25.

As of Wednesday, 32 residents and nine employees have tested positive for COVID-19. Two residents have died.

Twenty-four residents with COVID-19 are being treated at Life Care Center, four are receiving treatment at Hilo Medical Center and one is receiving care at another facility.

Four employees have fully recovered.

Mann said there’s no way to know for sure how the virus entered the facility, but it is thought to have entered through an asymptomatic employee.

About two-thirds of all cases associated with Life Care Center have been asymptomatic, he said.

Johnson said he thinks increased testing is catching virus cases before the individual develops symptoms.

“It takes everyone to defeat COVID,” Mann said. “Every associate here, every member of the community. It’s all encompassing, and really the only way we’re going to overcome this is together and collectively. That’s the reality we’ve faced here the last six months.

“… I think we have been committed from the end of February to doing all we can to protect everyone here in our building, including residents and all associates, and we take that very seriously, and we will continue to take that seriously,” he continued. “We know our kuleana and everyone here feels the kuleana and challenge before us.”

Johnson agreed and said it’s also important for people in the community to do their part to help prevent spread of the virus by wearing masks, social distancing and limiting the size of gatherings.

“I think people in the community may not realize sometimes their actions may impact someone who works in long-term care facilities,” he said.

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As of Wednesday, there were 193 patients and more than 200 staff members at the facility.

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

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