Federal 'Tiger Team' Heads To Hilo Veterans Home As Death Roll Rises To 14

Sep 16, 2020

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is sending a larger COVID-19 team to the Big Island Thursday to help contain the coronavirus outbreak at the Yukio Okutsu State Veterans Home. Multiple investigations are underway into the outbreak at the Hilo nursing home that has claimed the lives of 14 veterans and left another 84 residents and staff infected with the virus.

Big Island Mayor Harry Kim says he’s grateful for the federal assistance, but he expressed frustration over the state’s lack of urgency in making that initial request.

"What I’ve been asking for was help from the state to come in and review what was going on two or three weeks ago. And finally, a week before last, the Governor [David Ige] said they’d bring somebody in to make a review," says Kim. "If I was in command, none of you would even leave this place. I could care less if you don’t get any sleep. You’re gonna stay and get this done."

A COVID-19 outbreak began on August 22. Three residents are being hospitalized and another 51 residents and 30 staff have been been infected.

"Everybody feels like they’re part of this. I think everybody feels like they’re a part of this because what could we have done differently?" said Retired Army Colonel Deb Lewis, who spent 34 years in the service and is an active member of the Hilo veterans community. "A loss of life is a tragic thing."

She hopes investigations into the outbreak offer solutions instead of blame.

"This is not a time to criticize. We need to focus on getting containment," says Lewis. "Every question, every response, every effort has to be to keep containing it.  What can we do to help you? Not point the finger. I’ve never seen that work."

The outbreak in Hilo is the focus of three separate investigations. The Hawaiʻi Emergency Management Agency or HI-EMA sent its long-term care specialist Dr. Albert Yazawa to Hilo last week to assess the situation. There is no word yet on when or if this report would be made available to the public.

A second report is expected to be released later this week by the state Department of Health. The agency conducted an unannounced inspection of the veterans home last Wednesday after growing concerns over the spread of the infection.

A third report by a Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) team is being reviewed by Incident Commander and HI-EMA Director Kenneth Hara. VA Nurse Executive Dorene Sommers led the team through an inspection of the facility last Friday.

"We worked side-by-side with the leadership there on the ground. And took a tour of the facility," says Sommers. "And we saw the staff very, very dedicated to their jobs here and wanting to take care of the veterans."

Sommers couldn’t share her findings but did confirm that she’s headed to Hilo tomorrow as a member of a VA COVID-19 “tiger team.” That's an ad-hoc group of specialists who will help implement recommendations to control the spread, provide training and oversight, and give immediate staff support and respite.

Allison Griffiths, spokeswoman for Avalon Health Systems, which runs the veterans home, said many of the recommendations in the VA’s report were already in place prior to the federal agency's visit. She said the facility immediately began implementing the other recommendations from the VA. She says Avalon will work closely with the tiger team and HI-EMA to stop the spread of COVID-19 in its facility.

Griffiths said contact tracing found that the coronavirus entered the facility through an asymptomatic staff member and through a resident exposed at an outside dialysis appointment.