Mayor Pushing Management Change at Hilo Veterans Home

September 23, 2020, 7:02 PM HST (Updated September 23, 2020, 7:02 PM)
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Mayor Harry Kim. PC: Team Ige

A decision on the future management of Yukio Okutsu State Veterans Home could be made Thursday, Hawai‘i County’s mayor said this afternoon.

Mayor Harry Kim started pushing for changes to the administrative staff after nearly a dozen veterans died from COVID-19 earlier this month. An outbreak of the virus was identified in the facility in August and as of today, the death toll has reached 26.

“The damage done is unconscionable in regards to the deaths of so many people,” Kim said. “I only hope, at this point, to minimize harm.”

Yukio is currently managed by the Utah-based company Avalon Health Care Group. Kim said he’s been discussing with Gov. David Ige about moving the care of the veterans home under the purview of Hilo Medical Center. The mayor went on to say that HMC has an established statewide reputation and feels it would be a natural fit.

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“I think this belongs to Hawai‘i’s community,” the mayor said. “These are Hawai‘i’s people.”

HMC spokeswoman Elena Cabatu confirmed Wednesday evening that the hospital administration was aware of Kim’s wish to bring the veterans home under the care of HMC. She was unable to comment further at that time.

Kim said he spoke to Ige Wednesday. According to the mayor, Ige is following through on recommendations provided by multiple assessments completed on the facility this month.

The US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and the Hawai‘i Emergency Management Agency (HI-EMA) conducted independent reports on the coronavirus cluster at the home. The state Department of Health’s Office of Health Care Assurance (OHCA) is also conducting a report that has yet to be made public.

Additionally, the VA “Tiger Team” arrived at the home last week. The 18-person team, which includes nurses, an infectious disease physician and nurse, in addition to nurse managers, safety officers, industrial hygienists, and engineers, is part of the VA’s “Fourth Mission,” supporting the nation’s public health response in a national emergency. The VA team will provide training and support to staff for the next two weeks.

Kim is grateful for the team that is currently at Yukio, adding while he’s satisfied with their work, he wishes help would’ve come sooner.

“I cannot imagine the emotional pain we’ve caused,” the mayor said.

Avalon spokesperson Allison Griffiths stated in an email to Big Island Now that the Tiger Team remained at the facility as of Wednesday.

“We are working closely with them, as we do everything we can to save lives,” she said.

Griffiths said Avalon has no reason to think leave for the administrative staff would be beneficial at this time, adding Yukio employees are working tirelessly to keep residents safe as they implement the recommendations in the two new reports from the VA and HI-EMA.

“Since the earliest days of the pandemic, our staff has promptly put all recommendations and protocols in place, including guidance from the Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and state health officials,” Griffiths said.

Their efforts, Griffiths added, are highlighted by a COVID-19 focused infection control survey that was conducted in June by OHCA, which at the time showed the facility was in full compliance with infection control guidelines.

“While standards are updated over time as we learn more about this historic threat, this shows that our healthcare heroes are doing everything they can to keep our residents safe,” she stated.

Griffiths also thanked the residents in Hilo and elsewhere in Hawai‘i who have reached out to offer support.

“Our staff is battling on the front lines of a historic threat, and they take comfort knowing that they have support from some community members.”

This is a developing story and it will be updated as more information becomes available.

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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