KITV 4 ABC | KITV4 exclusive: COVID-positive resident at Yukio Okutsu State Veterans Home speaks out

September 10, 2020
In The News

Former Air Force airman describes depressing atmosphere, what he says is the need for more staff, and the feeling of watching "war brothers" getting sick and dying all around him.

A state veteran's home on Hawaii Island has become a hotspot for COVID-19 cases, and on Thursday, we're hearing an exclusive story from one of its residents.

The Yukio Okutsu State Veterans Home in Hilo reported no new deaths Thursday, but in the past 12 days, ten residents lost their lives to the virus, and 64 residents and 24 employees have tested positive; 71 of those cases are still active.

Former Air Force Sgt. Noa Ka'akimaka once served his country in the Vietnam War. He saw men all around him going down, and he's seeing it again today with the coronavirus. "This is a deadly virus," he states.

Ka'akimaka lives at the Yukio Okutsu State Veterans Home. He's quarantined in a room alone because, he says, he was diagnosed with COVID-19 at the end of August. He says he's lucky to be asymptomatic. He says he hears about the sick and the dying from the nurses.

"I'm finding out some of these patients are not making it. And they tell me. I say, 'Oh my goodness, I knew him, I used to talk to him before. Now he is down, he's not making it."

"Do you feel things are under control? Are there enough nurses, protective equipment?," I ask.

"No, no. It's not. The nurses are coming from Honolulu too because some of our staff was infected," he tells me.

Over the weekend, US Sen. Brian Schatz twice called for an urgent federal intervention into what he terms a public health crisis. “We need to contain this outbreak immediately, and we need federal help,” said Sen. Schatz. “I’m calling on the VA to immediately step in and deploy infection control experts and other health care professionals to the Big Island to get this under control. This is a public health emergency, and we need all the help we can get to stop this outbreak and save lives.”

In a pair of letters to Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Secretary Robert Wilkie and Governor David Ige, Schatz raised concerns about the handling of the outbreak and called for immediate federal help to identify where the facility is falling short and how it can improve infection control protocols, use of personal protective equipment, and other measures that will protect its residents and the workers who care for them. Schatz wrote, “It is increasingly clear to me that the state home is understaffed and ill equipped to stop this outbreak on its own. Moreover, I am concerned that the state and county have been too slow to respond to the crisis with the urgency that it demands, including with a request for more federal assistance.”

Thursday, US Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (HI-02) said, "Losing ten of my fellow veterans at the Yukio Okutsu State Veterans Home to COVID-19 leaves a profound hole in our hearts. It is unconscionable that these veterans who selflessly sacrificed so much now find themselves struggling to survive under the threat of this virus -- yet another consequence of the lack of testing and contact tracing should have been in place months ago, that continues to plague our state.

“We are in close contact with those responsible for managing the facility to help provide support to contain this outbreak and prevent more undue suffering and loss of life. Not only is urgent action needed to protect our veterans, urgent action is needed to protect every person in our state.”

Ka'akimaka agrees, "The government really should step in and do more."

The state health department says an inspection by its Office of Health Care Assurance began Wednesday and will continue Thursday. It is a two-day, unannounced inspection on compliance with state regulations for long-term care facilities. An inspection report will be available in about a week.

The care home's managing company Avalon Health Care Management, Inc. released this statement in response to the criticisms: "The dedicated caregivers at the Yukio Okutsu State Veterans Home are working tirelessly to safeguard our residents as they fight on the frontlines against this historic pandemic. This includes following all CDC guidelines, all staff wearing N95 respirators and other PPE, a dedicated COVID-unit that is isolated from other residents, suspension of group activities and dining, and consistently reminding residents to practice social distancing and wear masks when not in their rooms. We are also working collaboratively with state and local health officials. Our residents are part of our family, and like any family we will do everything possible to protect their wellbeing," says Allison K. Griffiths, Vice President of the legal department.

Griffiths also tells KITV4, "Only three to four families have removed loved ones from the facility due to COVID. Testing took place at the facility yesterday and most of the results are still pending. At this point, we are only receiving positive results back as they come in. We should receive the entire list back, including negatives, soon. This is the sixth round of all staff and resident testing at the facility in conjunction with the outbreak. The first round of all staff and resident testing took place the day after we received notice of the first staff positive – August 23. The state had a physician from HI-EMA at the facility yesterday doing an inspection. Of course, we cooperated with the inspection and are welcome the support and collaboration. We have not received a report yet. I understand another team from the VA is likely coming tomorrow [Friday]."

Every time another resident dies, Ka'akimaka says the staff plays Taps over the intercom and walks the flag draped casket down the hall. "When that happens I sit on my wheelchair and give a salute to the guys. My war brothers," he shares, while he says a silent prayer, "Braddah, take care. We love you. You served the country well. I did too."

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