VA Special Response Team Coming to Hilo VA Home

September 16, 2020, 7:30 AM HST (Updated September 16, 2020, 10:50 AM)
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Mayor Harry Kim. PC: Team Ige

A Veteran Affairs special response team is headed to Yukio Okutsu State Veterans Home to help the facility and its employees grappling with a COVID-19 outbreak, which has left 15 residents dead.

Hawai‘i County Mayor Harry Kim confirmed Tuesday the Tiger Team would be in Hilo on Friday. The team will provide training, oversight and offer needed staff and support respite. The VA team will address issues from management to health care to food preparation to maintenance.

Kim feels the assistance is coming late and shoulders much of the burden for the COVID deaths and widespread infection at the home. From the moment the first case was reported at the facility in August, the mayor indicated he should have been more aggressive in addressing the coronavirus cluster.

“I should’ve been stronger, I should’ve been more demanding,” Kim reflected.

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The mayor initially reached out to Gov. David Ige Sept. 4 after reports of the sixth death at the VA home. At the time, he asked the governor to send a team to review the facility’s operations in its response to the pandemic and care of the residents.

A team from the state as well as Veterans Affairs ended up coming to the Hilo veterans home last week. During a report of the visit on Sept. 11, Kim questioned what action is to be taken next, to which he learned that a report of their review findings would be sent to Avalon Health Care Group, the Utah-based company that manages the facility. The report will ask them to address items identified that need changing and investigators will return in a few days to ensure those changes have been made.

This was an unacceptable answer for Kim. And in a rare impromptu press conference on Saturday, the mayor called for the VA home’s administration to step down while the report and its findings were addressed.

Kim said it took two weeks to get the review done.

“I tried to work through the process but the frustration was building up,” the mayor explained as to why he called the press conference.

“I don’t like grandstanding,” Kim said, adding he felt he needed to bring swift attention to the VA home.

“I’ll die regretting this, I really will,” he said.

Allison Griffiths, spokeswoman for Avalon Health Care, wrote in an email to Big Island Now that they are working closely with the VA to implement their recommendations and ensure we have all the support we need to safeguard our residents. They are currently reviewing the recommendations they provided and “we will continue to work in tandem with the VA so long as this virus is a threat.”

“Research shows that the rate of community spread is the strongest indicator of the likelihood for the virus spreading in long-term care settings,” Griffiths explained. “That is why we ask the local community to help us fight this historic threat by wearing masks, practicing social distancing and following all other guidelines by federal, state and local officials. You can help us save lives by taking these steps.”

Griffiths said the staff, which she described as heroes, has worked tirelessly to keep residents in their care safe.

“While this is a historic challenge they are facing, we couldn’t be prouder of all they are doing,” she said. “They see their residents as part of their own families, and that commitment is showing.

Tiffany DeMasters
Tiffany DeMasters is a reporter for Big Island Now. Tiffany worked as the cops and courts reporter for West Hawaii Today from 2017 to 2019. She also contributed stories to Ke Ola Magazine and Honolulu Civil Beat. Tiffany is an award-winning journalist, receiving recognition from the Utah-Idaho-Spokane Associated Press and Society of Professional Journalists. Tiffany grew up on the Big Island and is passionate about telling the community’s stories.

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