Reports: Hilo veterans home failed to take proactive steps before COVID-19 outbreak

Updated: Sep. 21, 2020 at 4:14 PM HST
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HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - The group that manages a Hilo veterans home where at least 24 patients with COVID-19 have died in recent weeks failed to take proper precautions to prevent the spread of the virus, reports from the state and the US Department of Veterans Affairs conclude.

A federal VA disaster response team was deployed to the facility as the death toll climbed.

An assessment from an onsite VA team, released last week, found Avalon Health Care had some coronavirus preventative measures in place since the start of the pandemic — but not enough.

As the virus spread, more measures were put in place after the fact.

Among the issues flagged in the report:

  • Staff came into contact with multiple wings of residents without changing personal protective equipment;
  • Mask wearing by residents was inconsistent outside of their rooms;
  • Residents were not cohorted based on their COVID status;
  • And there was a lack of hand sanitizer stations and proper cleaning.

One social worker expressed exhaustion from working extended hours and covering other duties due to a shortage of staff. The social worker adds that the shortage was not only due to staff testing positive, but because of staff quitting. The report says leadership did not appear to feel a need for more staffing.

Separately, a Hawaii Emergency Management Agency report on the facility also concluded the facility failed to take proactive steps to prevent a large outbreak at the facility.

Dr. K. Albert Yazawa, who conducted the HIEMA assessment, said the culture at the home “was one that remained entrenched in pre-COVID norms” without putting the health of the general population first.

The state report flagged similar problems as the VA report, including that residents were moving between units and that staff members were gathering and not following social distancing measures even as cases rose.

Avalon Health Care Group responded to the findings of the VA report with this statement:

“We appreciate the support and collaboration of the Department of Veterans Affairs. As you can see, the Facility had already implemented a large number of the recommendations. For those not already in place, the Facility immediately began prioritizing and implementing many of the remaining recommendations as set forth above, in advance of the arrival of the Tiger Team.”

Meanwhile, lawmakers are outraged at the worsening situation at the care home, saying it could’ve been prevented. In a statement, U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz said the VA report makes clear that Avalon didn’t take the necessary steps to protect its residents — or its staff.

He added: "We have known all along that nursing homes and their residents were particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, so it is infuriating to see that basic infection control practices were not in place months after the pandemic began. Avalon must take immediate action to address the recommendations of this report to ensure the safety of the veterans and staff at the State Veterans Home.”

Read the full report below:

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