State Says Veterans Home Staff Receiving Death Threats

Sep 23, 2020

Updated: 9/23/2020, 9:42 a.m. Staff at the Yukio Okutsu State Veterans Home in Hilo have been getting death threats, according to a state emergency management official.

This comes just one day after the state released a report placing partial blame on staff for a COVID-19 outbreak that has taken the lives of 26 veterans and infected another 78 residents and staff.

Dr. Steven Hankins, medical lead for the Hawaiʻi Emergency Management Agency or HI-EMA, says now is not the time for division and derision.

"I am distressed to learn that some of these very, very dedicated, compassionate, hard-working staff have received death threats and they’ve been called murderers," he said. "And that is just heartbreaking and just not where we need to be using our energies right now."

But, he adds, that’s not to say that accountability should be ignored.

The report released Monday by HI-EMA found a culture of complacency among staff was a major contributor to the outbreak at the Hilo veterans home. One of the report’s most telling findings, said Hankins, is a detailed timeline of the infectious spread.

"That even though folks there were following guidelines and implementing changes to address the outbreak, that the speed with which it moved through the facility required additional support in order to really bring it under control," he said.

The additional support finally arrived Friday: a federal team of infectious disease experts. Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim had asked the state for help at least three weeks ago, after the first COVID-19 death at the facility.

"Damn it! You know? Honestly, I’m satisfied in one way in regard to a response finally. That goes all the way back to three or four weeks of asking, begging," he said.

But, he says, more than two dozen veterans have died since. Kim says the findings in HI-EMA's six-page report are regrettable, especially for ‘ohana who have lost loved ones.

"I would have welcomed an investigation that said, 'One hundred percent of the things that should have been done, could have been done – were done. This was just circumstances.' But look at that report. Can you imagine if you’re the family and you read that report?"

Kim has called for the veterans home operator, Avalon Health Care Group, to be ousted from the facility. The company manages the veterans home under a contract with the Hawaii Health Systems Corp., the semi-independent agency that oversees the state public hospitals.

Allison Griffiths, spokeswoman for Avalon Health Care, said: "I know that’s the question that everybody really wants an answer to, you know, 'What happened?'”

"And if there were an easy answer to that question than obviously nursing homes across the country would not continue to be devastated by COVID-19."

She said caring for a vulnerable population in a communal setting with an insidious and highly contagious virus is a complex task, one that requires better guidance from federal and state authorities that oversee nursing homes.

"Again those are the guidelines that all nursing homes are or should be following. And that’s what we were doing," she said.

The HI-EMA report is one of three investigations into the Yukio Okutsu State Veterans Home outbreak.

A separate report was released Friday by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. In the report, an assessment team said there appeared to be little evidence that the Avalon Health Care planned or prepared for the COVID-19 pandemic at the veterans facility.

A third report is expected this week from the state health department. 

As of yesterday, five residents are hospitalized at the medical center and 17 are receiving care at the home's COVID-designated area, according to the Hilo Medical Center. The veterans home, which has a bed capacity of 95, is now down to 49 residents.