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The Latest: 2 Deaths, 167 New Cases; Federal Team Headed For State Veterans Home

Updated: 9/11/2020, 12:08 p.m.

The state Department of Health today reported 2 more deaths and 167 new cases, bringing the state death toll to 96 and the total number of cases to 10,459. There have now been 9,446 cases on Oahu, 562 on Hawaii Island, 367 for Maui County, and 58 on Kauai. Twenty-six residents were diagnosed out of state.

The Department of Health interpreted yesterday's 169 new COVID-19 cases as a positive indication that "measures are working." The department said the state is beginning to "turn the corner and regain control of the spread of the disease on all islands."

Despite the state's upbeat assessment, there were three deaths reported yesterday and the case count remains in triple digits. 

According to outgoing Health Director Bruce Anderson, the recent decline in new cases "didn't happen by accident or wishful thinking; it has been a collaborative effort." He credited his own department, the Hawaii National Guard, the University of Hawaii and the public's use of face masks and social distancing.

He did not mention the stay-at-home order for Oahu initiated by Mayor Kirk Caldwell that has been extended another two weeks. But Anderson warned that the public should not let its guard down. He claimed that if there are surges in the future, "we can expect them to be smaller and last for a shorter duration because of our system in place to control the spread more rapidly."

It was under Anderson's watch that new cases surged into the 100s, 200s and at its peak into the 300s beginning in late July, leading to a spike in the death count. He is retiring next week and his top lieutenant, state Epidemiologist Sarah Park, has taken paid leave. Both departures follow heavy criticism of the department's poor performance in providing adequate testing, contact tracing and communication through the pandemic.

Yesterday's three deaths were all from Oahu. There were two men -- one in his 70s and another in his 50s. The third death was a woman also in her 50s. 
Free surge testing continues this weekend at various Oahu locations, including at Aloha Stadium and Ala Wai District Park, and is scheduled to wrap up Monday. Participants can walk-up or register at doineedacovid19test.com.

See the website for details on the locations and times for the testing sites.

Federal team sent to Hilo veterans home where 10 lives lost to COVID-19

A federal team of health care workers is headed to the Yukio Okutsu State Veterans Home in Hilo to help with the COVID-19 outbreak at the Big Island nursing facility. This follows criticism from U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz that the county and state were not responding quickly enough to the medical emergency that has taken 10 lives.

Schatz today announced that the Department of Veterans Affairs has mobilized a team of infection control experts and health care professionals to provide immediate support and help contain the situation.

The move comes just days after Schatz made a request to the VA for assistance following rising COVID-19 cases and deaths at the facility.

In a news release, the senator’s office says the VA team will include a physician and a nurse who specialize in treating infectious diseases, a facilities engineer who understands environmental air flow and AC systems, a safety officer, and an industrial hygienist.

Schatz says the medical experts will conduct an onsite assessment in the veterans home for infection control issues.

According to the Hilo Medical Center, there were no new fatalities at the veterans home yesterday, and the death toll there stood at 10.

The hospital said 64 residents and 24 employees had tested positive for COVID-19 as of yesterday. Three residents are hospitalized at the hospital and 37 are being cared for in the nursing home's COVID-designated area.

Hilo Medical reported it is treating 14 COVID patients, 6 in the intensive care unit, 7 in its COVID unit and 1 in the obstetrics unit.

Last weekend, Schatz said the nursing home is understaffed and ill-equipped to deal with the crisis, a description that a veterans home spokeswoman with operator Avalon Heath Care Group disputed.

Schatz also chastized the state and county for failing to act urgently to address what he described as a public emergency. 

Avalon Health Care now says it believes the virus came into the facility in two ways: one through a worker who was asymptomatic and was exposed in the community. The second was possibly through a resident who was exposed at an outside dialysis appointment.

Feds dispatch nurses, medical personnel to help hospitals stressed in case surge

Twenty-one medical personnel, primarily nurses, have been sent to Honolulu by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to help local hospitals while COVID-19 cases continue to hit triple digits. 

The federal medical team began working yesterday at The Queen's Medical Center at Hale Pulama Mau and the Kuakini Medical Center, providing temporary surge support, according to the Hawai‘i Emergency Management Agency.

The 21 medical personnel from the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps and 15 professionals from the Veterans Health Administration are supporting the hospitals for up to 14 days.

Local hospitals had urgently asked for the federal help as COVID-19 cases threatened to overwhelm their capacities. Although beds are available, it is the lack of medical workers -- especially nurses -- that had prompted the hospitals to seek help.

Moloka‘i residents criticize lack of communication, quarantine enforcement

Moloka‘i residents are frustrated with the government’s lack of transparency and quarantine enforcement as the number of COVID-19 cases on the island grows to six. 

Over the last three weeks, health officials reported positive cases scattered throughout the island from Maunaloa to Kalae. Most are travel related or close contacts of someone who traveled.

Moloka‘i state Rep. Lynn DeCoite says the island’s tight-knit community is used to knowing what goes on in their community.

But health authorities say privacy laws prevent them from  disclosing detailed information on positive cases.

"Some of these people that are supposed to be in quarantine are not in quarantine. And so my question then became how is it that the contact tracers -- whether they are calling them or not," DeCoite said.

"Where are the whereabouts of these individuals, if we're seeing them on the streets. I'm worried about that because it's gone to the point that they want answers...And I think at this point, that those contact tracers if we can’t give out their names, then they should also be enforcers."

DeCoite worries Molokai’s remote location and lack of hospital facilities could pose problems, if the number of COVID-19 cases continue to climb.

Health authorities are expecting results today from nearly 300 COVID-19 tests conducted on the island earlier this week. This should help officials see just how far the virus may have spread.

--HPR's Ku'uwehi Hiraishi

This is a developing story. Please check back for upates. Editor's note: We’d like to hear how you’re coping with the latest COVID-19 developments and the state's phased reopening. You can call our talkback line at 808-792-8217. Or e-mail us at talkback@hawaiipublicradio.org.

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