As death toll at Hilo veteran’s home mounts, family calls for criminal investigation

As death toll at Hilo veteran’s home mounts, family calls for criminal investigation

HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - As the COVID-19 death toll at Hilo’s Yukio Okutsu Veterans Home continues to mount, one family of a resident at the facility is demanding a criminal investigation.

Mary Benevides says prior to contracting COVID-19, her dad was always smiling, joking and doting on his grandchildren.

“He was happy,” she said. “He was funny. You know just always happy to hear from his family.”

But now she says all of that’s changed.

“He’s not my dad. Like how my dad was,” said Benevides. “Every phone call. Every text message makes your heart stop. You never know if it’s going to be that call.”

It’s been that way since early September when Walter Santos was diagnosed with COVID-19. The virus exacerbated his once manageable ailments, sending the 75-year-old downhill fast.

It’s a story being repeated over and over again. One that Benevides says should have been prevented.

Over the past month, 26 residents have died in connection with the COVID-19 outbreak at the facility.

In addition to calling for a criminal investigation into the home ― operated by Utah-based contractor Avalon Care Center VA Hilo ― Benevides has also enlisted the help of an attorney to look into the practices that contributed to 80% of the home’s residents contracting the virus.

“I want answers,” she said. “I thought my dad was safe. And knowing that he’s not, it just brings a lot of anxiety and fear.”

Attorney Jeffrey Foster says based on recent findings in reports issued by the VA and Hawaii Emergency Management officials, basic precautions to stop the spread of the virus were ignored.

“It’s not the treatment that the people who have protected us, who have protected our nation deserve," he said, adding that families need to know what happened.

“What were their protocols? Who was in charge? Who was making the decisions? Who was putting the procedures together. We don’t know that,” he said.

When asked to respond to allegations of criminal wrongdoing the vice president of Avalon Healthcare management’s legal team sent this statement:

“The facility has been following CDC and CMS guidance before and throughout the outbreak. The VA Tiger team is working with the facility staff to implement crisis strategies that go above CDC and CMS standards. We are disappointed by the finger pointing and inflammatory statements being made that have no basis in fact. Our hope is that the community would rally around a its essential health care workers who are fighting on the front lines of this historic pandemic, not tear them down.”

Meanwhile, Benevides wants proof the home is capable of caring for all the former servicemembers who live there.

“I feel like as a community we need to stand up and protect the veterans that we do have left. That are there," she said. "And the future veterans that will be entering into that home.”

Santos recently tested negative for COVID-19. Benevides says he’s showing some signs of progress.

He was released from the hospital and is now back at the veterans home.

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