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Hilo Veterans Home Slowly Getting Back to Normal After Deadly Outbreak Last Year

Big Island Video News

It’s been a year since a deadly COVID-19 outbreak surged through the Yukio Okutsu State Veterans Home in Hilo, killing 27 residents and infecting more than 100 residents and staff.

The outbreak led to the removal of Avalon Health Care, the Utah-based company that operated Yukio Okutsu since its opening, and changed the way long-term care facilities are managed in East Hawaiʻi.

The veterans home's administrator, Kauʻi Chartrand, says day-to-day operations are slowly getting back to normal.

"Right now, we are COVID free. We do not have any COVID cases in-house. Our vaccination rates for staff and residents are above 90% and we are open to visitors as well," Chartrand told Hawaiʻi Public Radio.

Since Avalon’s departure, the Hawaii Health Systems Corporation took the nursing home under its wing. Many of the individuals tapped to serve in the new structure like Chartrand are long-term employees familiar with the challenges of providing long-term care in the area.

Chartrand, who took over as administrator in January, says the Hilo veterans home is one of the few long-term care facilities in Hawaiʻi currently accepting new residents. The 95-bed facility is half full but fully staffed, and in compliance with federal and state regulations.

One of the biggest challenges has been restoring trust, which Chartrand says starts with owning its past.

"Acknowledging what took place here. We understand how important compliance is, but really to acknowledge the trauma that might have taken place and how it had affected our staff, our residents, and their ʻohana. That was really key," she said.

The home became a hotspot for the coronavirus last August, when it infected 35 staff and 71 residents, including 27 who died.

"When it hit, we had a time when you’re just struggling to make sense of it. Any loss of life in that way is hard to understand," Chartrand said.

Retired U.S. Army Col. Deb Lewis, the statewide commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, helped mobilize veteran support for Yukio Okutsu residents and staff with everything from hot meals to iPads for virtual visits. She says the community is stronger because of it.

"Whenever you have scars, battle scars or whatever, when it heals it's actually stronger — if you can get past the fact that tragedy struck. But it was all making us stronger and a tighter community. The support hasn’t let up by the way. We’re still paying attention," Lewis told Hawaiʻi Public Radio.

The surge in COVID-19 delta variant cases has led to a 9% positivity rate for Hawaiʻi County, currently the highest in the state.

Chartrand says she’s ramped up staff training and education on the aggressive delta variant and plans to expand monthly surveillance testing to all staff — not just those who are unvaccinated.

"And of course, just keeping our families, our ʻohana in the community informed as to what our status is and I think that has shown to be a very positive outcome for our residents and our families," Chartrand said.

Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi is a general assignment reporter at Hawaiʻi Public Radio. Her commitment to her Native Hawaiian community and her fluency in ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi has led her to build a de facto ʻōiwi beat at the news station. Send your story ideas to her at khiraishi@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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