HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - In 2008, Hawaii Island was proud to open the Yukio Okutso Veterans home. The Hilo facility was seen a benefit to the community, especially to those who served.
But today, that home for heroes is known for something else entirely.
It was there, this fall, that COVID-19 ravaged its ranks. Scores of residents and employees contracted the virus. Twenty-seven residents died.
Among the first of those to be diagnosed with COVID-19 was William Zerfuss, 87.
He was a Korean War veteran who had moved into the home in April for rehabilitation after breaking his hip. His daughter told West Hawaii Today that Zerfuss seemed to rebound from everything thrown his way.
But COVID was different. He could barely open his eyes as his body battled the virus. He died Aug. 29.
Chris Drayer, 70, was the third veteran to die at the home after contracting COVID-19. Family meant everything to the father and grandfather and he had been looking forward to returning home in September.
World War II veteran Susumu Nakagawa died Sept. 22, just one day after his 98th birthday.
In the war, he served in the 100th Infantry Battalion and was one of the “Go For Broke” Japanese-American soldiers in the highly decorated 442nd Regimental Combat team. When he returned to Hawaii, he built a successful career in entomology and then, later in life, took over the family restaurant from his parents.
The outbreak at the home happened during the waning days of Harry Kim’s tenure as Big Island mayor.
In December, Kim told Hawaii News Now that one of the few regrets he had about his time in public office was not acting fast enough to potentially stop the spread of the virus at the home.
He said the facility represented a sacred pledge to veterans — a promise to protect them just like they’d protected the country. “We made a promise,” he said, “and we did not keep it.”