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Aloha Spirit Prevails Amidst Historical Health Care Crisis

January 1, 2021, 5:26 PM HST
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Hawai’i County COVID-19 Task Force with with Dr. Akiona (bottom left) at Ocean View testing event on Oct. 24. (PC: Dr. Akiona)

The spirit of Aloha and community care shines out as a highlight of 2020, despite the overwhelming struggles brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think COVID brought forth a lot of challenges,” said Breeani Sumera-Lee, manager of the Keaukaha General Store and Seaside Hotel in Hilo. “Mainly what it taught me is if we work together anything is possible.”

The novel coronavirus was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization in March 2020. In Hawai‘i alone, the numbers of infections continue to increase daily with nearly 300 deaths.

Every Hawai‘i County resident has felt the impacts of COVID-19 from job loss, to school closures to not being able to gather with loved ones. Despite the frustration and struggles, many on the Big Island rose to the occasion to take care of each other.

Early on in the pandemic, Sumera-Lee said the year 2020 presented her an opportunity to be a connecter to the resources and people in the community through her capacity as program director for the nonprofit Hawai‘i Rise Foundation.

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The organization comprises of local business and community leaders to provide creative solutions for the deficiencies within the community. One of those deficiencies identified early on in the pandemic was a food crisis.

Care packages provided to to kupuna in March. (Courtesy of manager at Keaukaha General Store Breeani Sumera-Lee)

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In partnership with Hawai‘i Affordable Properties, Hilo Seaside Hotel and Keaukaha General Store, Sumera-Lee said, they were able to make more than 5,000 kupuna packs including essentials for kupuna, body soap, hand sanitizer, paper towels, toilet paper and resources available within the community.

In other various partnerships, Sumera-Lee was able to facilitate meals for kupuna and keiki islandwide.

“All of it was done through partnerships and other agencies,” Sumera-Lee said as she looked back on all that was accomplished. “2020 has been a rough year, I’m grateful for what it taught me — there is nothing without action.”

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Several organizations continue to provide food drops to families in need of food.

The medical community also stepped up to provide COVID-19 testing to all districts on the Big Island. Kaohimanu Akiona is leading testing efforts on behalf of Premier Medical Group (PMG) and in partnership with Hawai‘i County.

Akiona said PMG has been able to provide jobs for about 100 people — for some, this is a second job and for others, this has provided employment after being laid off due to COVID.

Akiona said this has been a good introduction for people into the medical field whereas they might not have considered it before.

“A lot of what we’re doing is providing access and education,” she said.

PMG started the testing process on the Big Island in April. Access and quality, Akiona said, were their main goals.

“We were helping people understand why we’re doing what we’re doing and empowering the community to ask the questions,” Akona explained. “It was so easy to get overwhelmed, so being in the community was very grounding.”

The whole system of public testing and working with the county, Akiona added, has proved itself to be good.

The community didn’t only take care of each other, but they took care of the health care workers. West Hawai‘i Community Health Center’s (WHCH) CEO Richard Taaffe said their clinic received food deliveries, donations of personal protective equipment and more.

“It gave our staff a sense of knowing there was support from the community,” Taaffe said.

While the WHCH team has been committed to serving West Hawai‘i, Taaffe said the community support created an enhanced sense of purpose.

“We have provided an energetic team committed to serving the community and I just can’t say enough about them,” the CEO said proudly of his employees.

Advanced practice registered nurse Anne Broderson was another health care worker instrumental in bringing COVID-19 screening and testing to West Hawai‘i. Working as a cardiology nurse practitioner at Ali‘i Health center at the time, Broderson was able to institute regular testing at the West Hawai‘i clinic that has continued since April.

“This is the biggest health care challenge of our lifetime yet an opportunity to revolutionize the way we deliver primary care,” Broderson said.

While the virus continues to be the biggest threat to the elderly and economy, Broderson said it given the health care community a chance to develop sustainable industries.

“The silver linings of the COVID storm are ever-present and we have found ways to bring the private sector, county, and state agencies in line to find collaborative solutions to kokua for our Big Island community,” she added.

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