Second suit filed in connection with vets home outbreak

  • KELSEY WALLING/Tribune-Herald file photo Yukio Okutsu State Veterans Home in Hilo.

A Kona attorney has filed a second lawsuit on behalf of the family of a veteran who died as a result of a COVID-19 outbreak at Yukio Okutsu State Veterans Home.

The suit was filed Oct. 6 in Hilo Circuit Court by attorney Jeffrey Foster on behalf of Kaweluokalani Akana and Kawehionalani Akana, son and daughter, respectively, of the late Lawrence Elton Akana, who died Sept. 18.

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Named as defendants in the wrongful death suit are Avalon Health Care Group and several Avalon subsidiaries, Tina Irwin, Avalon’s regional vice president for Hawaii, and governmental “Doe” entities.

According to the lawsuit, Lawrence Akana, 70, a U.S. Army Vietnam War veteran, had been in the veterans home since Oct. 26, 2018, after sustaining an infection while at a Kona beach.

The document states Avalon notified Akana’s sons that their father had tested negative four times on Aug. 24, 27 and 30, and Sept. 7 before testing positive on Sept. 9 and being moved into the facility’s “COVID unit” with other patients who had tested positive.

According to the complaint, Akana’s son called the veterans home on Sept. 17 and was told his father had been put on oxygen the night before because his blood-oxygen level dropped into the low 80s. Oxygen is usually administered to patients when their level falls below 95.

The following day, Akana’s son called again and was told his father’s oxygen levels and temperature were normal, the suit alleges.

The suit states that the same night at about 10 p.m., Kaweluokalani Akana received a call from the facility to inform him Lawrence Akana had died.

According to the suit, Akana’s family had received only two unsolicited calls about his condition from the facility — on Sept. 11 from a social worker telling them he was “doing fine” and the Sept. 18 call informing Akana’s son his father had died.

The suit cites numerous findings of an Office of Veterans Affairs investigation dated Sept. 12.

Those findings include: staff with known COVID contacts gathering in break room without masks; no measures to prevent dementia patients from wandering within the facility; no measures to prevent housekeeping and maintenance staff from “intermixing from the COVID unit to other units”; and staff shortages caused both by positive test results and resignations.

There have been 27 coronavirus-related deaths reported at the veterans home since an outbreak began there in late August. At least 71 residents and 35 employees of the facility have contracted the virus.

Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim requested during a Sept. 12 news conference that Avalon be removed as the facility’s manager. Then, on Sept. 21, Kim demanded Gov. David Ige remove Avalon from the veteran’s home, issuing a statement expressing “no trust in Avalon” and saying the outbreak at the facility, which at that point had caused 24 deaths, “is tragic, and unacceptable.”

The East Hawaii Region of Hawaii Health Care Systems announced on Sept. 25 it was taking over operations and management of Yukio Okutsu from Avalon.

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The wrongful death lawsuit is the second filed by Foster against Avalon. The first was on Sept. 30 on behalf of the family of Chris Drayer, a 70-year-old U.S. Army Vietnam War veteran who died Sept. 2.

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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