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The Latest: 56 New Cases; Two More Deaths At State Veterans Home Bring Toll to 24

AP Photo/Tim Wright

Updated: 9/21/2020, 11:53 a.m.

Where we stand

The Hawaii Department of Health today reported no new deaths from COVID-19 and 56 cases statewide. It's the second consecutive day of no deaths and double-digit case counts. But two more fatalities at the Yukio Okutsu State Veterans Home in Hilo were reported yesterday, bringing the death toll at the troubled nursing home to 24. 

There have been 69 residents and 32 employeess who have tested positive for COVID-19 at the veterans home since the outbreak began, according to the Hilo Medical Center. Six residents are hospitalized at the medical center and 18 are being cared for at the home's COVID-designated area.

The report of yet two more deaths at the veterans home followed the release Friday night of a critical report from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs pointing to key shortcomings in procedures and practices by the nursing home's operator, Avalon Health Care Group.

As earlier reported by HPR, a VA assessment team found little evidence that the veterans home had proactively planned or prepared for COVID-19.

Hawaii Sen. Brian Schatz said in a statement yesterday the serious infection control issues that the report revealed "makes clear that Avalon did not take the steps necessary to protect its residents and staff."

He said it was known all along that nursing homes and their residents were particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, "so it is infuriating to see that basic infection control practices were not in place months after the pandemic began." 

He called on Avalon to take "immediate action to address the recommendations of this report to ensure the safety of the veterans and staff at the State Veterans Home." Schatz said he and his staff will continue monitoring the outbreak and help provide additional federal resources to curb the spread of the virus.

Avalon has maintained that it had followed guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services and the state Deparment of Health. It said it had in place more than 60 percent of the recommendations of the VA team before its initial visit on Sept. 11.

Earlier this month, Schatz raised the alarm about the rising death toll and infections at the state veterans home, calling on the VA to dispatch a team to the facility.

A 19-person VA team is now at the facility helping with infection control and other issues raised in the assessment report.

Schatz had also chastized the state and county for not moving quickly to control the outbreak, something that Big Island Mayor Harry Kim has acknowledged was a failing on his part.

Besides the VA, the state Department of Health and Hawaii Emergency Management Agency are now investigating the outbreak. A separate report on the Hilo veterans home outbreak by the health department is expected to be released later today.

Today's statewide COVID-19 case count brought the total number of infections to 11,459. Deaths stand at 120. 

There have now been 10,338 cases on Oahu, 651 on Hawaii Island, 385 for Maui County, and 57 on Kauai. Twenty-eight residents have been diagnosed out of state. 

Mayor says he won't rush Oahu reopening

Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell says he won’t rush into reopening Oahu, even though the state plans to welcome back tourists next month.

The city’s latest “stay-at-home, work-from-home” order is set to expire Thursday. The order could be further eased or extended.

Gov. David Ige announced last week that tourists with a negative pre-flight test can skip the two-week quarantine starting Oct. 15. Even then, Caldwell says arriving visitors must comply with every city COVID-19 mandate.

"We have PSAs going on right now using various media to get the message out to our local folks. Those will continue, but we’ll also be pivoting to try to get it out to the visitor industry folks, too," the mayor said, "so hotels and to other sources that visitors go to find outside information.

"But they definitely need to know, and we will work to make sure they’re equally informed so they don’t get themselves in trouble. But more importantly, they don’t get any of us sick, because they don’t follow any of those requirements -- including wearing a face covering and all those other things."

City officials are expected to soon announce the next phase of Oahu’s  reopening.

The first time the city had a phased lifting of the lockdown order, there was a surge in COVID-19 cases and officials don’t want a repeat of that.

--HPR's Casey Harlow

Kawainui Street project moves forward, but may not have backing

A controversial affordable housing project in Kailua is moving forward at Honolulu Hale. But its chances of passing the full City Council this week are in doubt.

The council’s planning committee approved a resolution granting fee and zoning exemptions to the Kawainui Street Apartments project.

Committee chair Ron Menor, and members Brandon Elefante and Joey Manahan supported the measure, citing Oahu’s increasing need for affordable housing.

But council members Ann Kobayashi, Tommy Waters, Kymberly Pine and Heidi Tsuneyoshi opposed the project, citing community’s concerns.

Council Chair Ikaika Anderson, who represents the district where the project is planned, says he personally likes the project but cannot vote in support of it.

"I hear the community that I was elected to represent, and that I was born and raised in, and spent 21 years of my life living in. Their opposition to this project, it’s become apparent to me that the community opposes this project at this location," he said.

"And as such, chair, as I prepare to exit this council, I can’t ignore the community’s requests to me to stand with them and vote this project down, despite my personal opinions and positions.

Anderson had earlier announced his departure from the council ahead of being termed out at the end of the year.

The City Council will review the housing project during a special meeting on Wednesday. Five of nine members are expected to vote against the measure.

--HPR's Casey Harlow

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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