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The Latest: 12 of 17 Deaths At Hilo Veterans Home Added to State Total, 114 New Cases

Big Island Video News

Updated: 9/18/2020,  9:05 p.m.

The Hawaii Department of Health today reported 13 deaths from COVID-19 and 114 new cases. Twelve of the deaths are from the Yukio Okutsu State Veterans Home in Hilo, where 17 people have died of the virus. The state said the delay in accounting for the fatalities was because of pending medical records.

First Report Released on the COVID-19 Outbreak at the Hilo Veterans Home

There was very little evidence of proactive preparation or planning for COVID-19 at the Yukio Okutsu State Veterans Home, according to a report released late Friday. The 16-page report was compiled by a team of infectious disease experts from the Department of Veterans Affairs after an onsite assessment last week. 

The report concluded that many of the practices observed seemed as if they were a result of recent changes.  "Even though these are improvements, these are things that should have been in place from the pandemic onset and a major contributing factor towards the rapid spread. A basic understanding of segregation and workflow seemed to be lacking even approximately three weeks after first positive case."

The VA team recommended making some structural changes such as installing physical barriers (non-flammable plastic with zipper entries) in the COVID unit at each entrance to the hallways. This includes an ante chamber for nurses to don and doff gowns prior to entry and exit. The team also recommended assigning a dedicated staff member to assist with employee exposure risk assessments, audits of PPE and training. 

Smaller recommendations were also included, such as placing additional hand sanitizers throughout the building, removing cloth chairs and paper signage from areas that need to be regularly cleaned, and issuing scrubs that are only used in the building. 

Meanwhile, two more deaths were reported yesterday at the Hilo veterans home, bringing the death toll from COVID-19 to 17 at the nursing facility run by Utah-based Avalon Health Care Group.

Avalon Health Care Group also operates the Hale Nani Rehabilitation & Nursing Center in Makiki, where 5 residents have died of COVID, and the Avalon Care Center in Kalihi, where 3 residents have died.

A team from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs was expected to arrive this week to help stem the rising number of deaths and infections at the Hilo nursing home.

The Hilo Medical Center said it is caring for four of the residents and that 29 are being treated at the veterans home's COVID-designated area.

Four veterans home residents are hospitalized at the Hilo Medical Center and 29 are being cared for at the nursing home's COVID-designated area.

So far 69 residents and 30 employees at the veterans home have tested positive for COVID-19. There are now 61 residents at the facility.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Hawaii Emergency Management Agency and state Department of Health are now investigating the deaths and outbreak at the facility.

Avalon Health Care said on its website that it has been following the health guidance of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other government agencies.The company also said it has followed the recommendations of the state and federal teams that visited the facility last week.

The dozen deaths included 11 men and one woman, all in their 70s and 80s with underlying medical conditions, the state Joint Information Center said in a news release. The 13th death was unrelated to the home and involved an Oahu man in his 70s with underlying health conditions.

Three separate government agency assessments are underway into the rising deaths and infections at the state veterans home, which is operated by Utah-based Avalon Health Care Group. (See more details on this story below.)

Today's latest counts bring the total death toll to 120 and cases statewide to 11,217. 

There have now been 10,119 cases on Oahu, 632 on Hawaii Island, 381 for Maui County, and 57 on Kauai. Twenty-eight residents have been diagnosed out of state. Due to updated information, two cases from Oahu were removed from the count and one Kauai case was re-categorized to Honolulu.

Yesterday's four deaths were three women and one man -- all from Oahu, with underlying medical conditions and hospitalized. Two of the women were in their 70s and the third was in her 80s. The man was in his 60s.

Seeing new cases are generally on a decline, the state announced it will reopen to Mainland tourists Oct. 15, waiving the 14-day quarantine if they have a negative pre-flight test for COVID.

The city is also expected to release plans to further ease restrictions under the Oahu's stay-at-home, work-from-home order that is in effect through Sept. 23. But Mayor Kirk Caldwell said yesterday that he will take a slower approach to reopening when Oct. 15 comes around.

The state's latest case numbers indicate that the state is at a plateau but that the four fatalities "tell us that we're not totally out of the woods yet," Lt. Gov. Josh Green said yesterday on his daily Instagram update.

But Green said in coming days, "I'm sure we'll be able to back off somewhat from the stay-at-home order. And I know that we're going to get ready to properly open our economy and education in coming weeks."

Green, who tested positive for COVID last week Friday and has been quarantining, said he was feeling better and did not have any symptoms yesterday. 

City offering more help to businesses, easing aid requirements for households 

Honolulu is adding another $75 million to its small business relief program, and changing it so that more companies can qualify or apply again.

Mayor Kirk Caldwell unveiled the program in May, allowing qualified businesses to apply for up to $10-thousand in aid. So far, businesses have received $60 million, which comes from the city's CARES Act funding.

Ed Hawkins, executive director of the city Office of Economic Development, outlined several changes to the program yesterday.

“Those who received $10,000 before, or up to 10, can apply again. Those who have not, they’re eligible for $20,000. So, if a business received, let’s say, $8,000 before – they could apply for the remainder, the $12,000.

"And then there’ll be three other levels, and we will base it on just the revenue of the businesses. Two to three million dollars in revenue goes up to $30,000 for each business; 3 to 4 million in revenue, $40,000. And then from 4-5 million, $50,000.”

Hawkins says there will be a tiered process for applications. Businesses with revenues of less than $2 million can apply first on Monday.

But the city’s small business relief program has expended more CARES Act funds than the individual hardship relief fund, which has distributed only $2.7 million of the initial $25 million allocation to 2,001 applicants.

The individual relief program was launched in May, allowing qualified households to receive up to $1,500 a month in relief. But the requirements have been a stumbling block for some who sought help.

Community Services Director Pamela Witty-Oakland yesterday said the program’s requirements are changing, and the city hopes to award more money going forward.

“The federal guidance keeps changing on us. In our case, it’s to our benefit,” Witty-Oakland said. “The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development reduced the requirements and recertification of household income.

“So we’re now allowing families, once they’ve certified once, they’re able to self-certify for subsequent months. So it’s making it a little bit easier as we go forward.”

Witty-Oakland says one of the changes is the increase in support, which will go from $1,500 to $2,500 a month.

More information on the city small business program can be found here and for the household hardship relief fund here.

UH students, faculty speak out for programs threatened by budget cuts

Dozens of students and faculty protested recommendations to cut low-enrollment programs at the University of Hawaii to help deal with a financial crisis brought on by COVID-19.

Degree programs in ethnic studies, women's studies, Philippine language and microbiology are among those that could be closed.

The UH Board of Regents heard yesterday from supporters of the programs, among them Jane Traynor, a first-year Ph.D. student in theater and dance.

"The program here is the only one of its kind in all of North America. And as a first choice school for scholars like me, it is priceless. Literally, I turned down other objectively better graduate recruitment offers so that I could come here. And I did that because I believe strongly in the training that the program here provides," she said.

"The theater community here is also one of the most diverse I have ever seen. As a visible minority myself, I am empowered by seeing people like me represented on the stage and in the faculty. It is also validating to see the performance traditions of my cultural heritage identified and recognized as theater worthy of study on the same level as Shakespeare, Beckett and Kushner.

"I came to this university with the impression that this institution cared about cultural diversity in a way that matters in actions and not just empty words. And I really hope that I was not wrong."

University President David Lassner said the suggestions made by a UH Manoa budget team to cut, merge or restructure certain programs are not final decisions.

He said the administration is now consulting with faculty, staff, unions and others on how to deal with the budget challenges.

The administration plans to present its program recommendations to the regents by the end of the year.

--HPR's Sandee Oshiro

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.

Casey Harlow was an HPR reporter and occasionally filled in as local host of Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
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