Veterans home accepting residents for first time since outbreak

  • Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald Administrator Kaui Chartrand stands outside the Yukio Okutsu State Veterans Home last week in Hilo.

Admissions to Yukio Okutsu State Veterans Home — halted last year due to a devastating outbreak of COVID-19 within the facility — recently have resumed.

“The staff are very excited and very positive to welcome our veterans back to our facility,” Administrator Kaui Chartrand said.

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During the outbreak, which began in late August, 71 residents and 35 employees tested positive for the novel coronavirus, and 27 residents died.

Chartrand said the first new resident was admitted at the end of February, and a second was admitted earlier this month.

All long-term care facilities within the East Hawaii Region of Hawaii Health Systems Corp. — which includes Yukio Okutsu, Hale Ho‘ola Hamakua, Ka‘u Hospital and Hilo Medical Center’s Extended Care Facility — now require vaccines for new admissions, said Denise Mackey, regional administrator for long-term care and critical access hospitals for the East Hawaii Region.

“Basically, it’s voluntary in the sense that any prospective resident can choose to take a vaccine or not, but if they choose not to, at this time anyway, they would not be a candidate for admission,” she said. “We’ve decided to err on the side of safety. … Always, that can be re-evaluated, but at this moment, vaccination is a requirement for any of our long-term care facilities.”

According to Mackey, new admissions must also quarantine for two weeks and are tested for COVID-19 prior to admission, and again at days 7 and 14. Staff are tested weekly.

As of last week there were 43 residents in the 95-bed veterans home.

When speaking about a possible return to full capacity, Mackey said, “We expect and anticipate it will be a slow process, and we’ll just keep re-evaluating as we go. But I don’t think that we have a set plan to only admit a certain amount (of people).”

Vaccines have helped reassure administrators, she said, and more federal guidance has been forthcoming about reopening the facility to visitors.

“We’re going to be looking soon at our visitation processes — that’s a national directive,” Mackey said. “So, I don’t think that there’s a thought that we would still have necessarily a cap, but I think that every step is going to be taken incrementally and with a lot of thought and a lot of preparation and planning. And as we feel ready, we will continue to ramp up (admissions). … We’ve just got to make sure everything is in alignment as we move along.”

Last year’s COVID crisis led to criticism regarding the management of the facility and its response to the outbreak, as well as calls for the management team in place at the time to be removed.

On Jan. 1, the governing board and leadership of HHSC’s East Hawaii Region assumed management of the Hilo veterans home from Avalon Health Care, which had managed the HHSC facility since it opened in 2007.

Chartrand, who began in her role earlier this year, said administrators are continuing to work with the leadership team and staff to ensure protocols and processes in place meet federal guidelines and regulations.

When asked about changes implemented by the new management team, Chartrand said there haven’t been significant changes. Rather, administrators are monitoring and tracking policies in place — such as infection control processes and the facility’s COVID-19 response — to ensure compliance.

“The leadership team, as well as the frontline staff there … they are an amazing group of individuals and the processes and protocols that we have developed that are currently in place, it’s basically just monitoring and tracking them and making sure that we are consistent with our response … While these processes are developed, we are making sure that we’re monitoring them and tracking them and that staff are responding as we need to, to ensure that we are providing safe care to our veterans,” Chartrand said.

Mackey said the East Hawaii Region wants to create a more regional model within its long-term care facilities.

“It’s going to be a very thoughtful and, I think, slow process to kind of look to establish best practices everywhere,” she said.

The U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services in February fined the facility $510,640 for failing to correct COVID-19 infection control and other deficiencies, following a series of unannounced visits from the state Department of Health’s Office of Health Care Assurance.

The visits were designed to determine if the facility was in compliance with federal requirements.

A follow-up visit on Jan. 6, however, found the facility to be in compliance.

The facility has been listed as a candidate for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ Special Focus Facility Program, according to an updated list shared in February by CMS.

“Special focus facilities” are nursing homes with a history of consistent quality issues that are under increased scrutiny by the CMS.

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“It’s pretty black and white,” Chartrand added. “You’re either put in special focus or you’re not,and we’d like to think that starting Jan. 6, with the state survey that we were actually put back into compliance, I feel positive that we are moving in the right direction.”

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

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