Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim renewed his call Monday that control of operations at Yukio Okutsu State Veterans Home be removed from Avalon Health Care.

County Civil Defense officials announced another death of an Okutsu resident Tuesday morning. That means a total of 25 veterans and their spouses who lived at the home have died after testing positive for COVID-19, and Kim said in his letter that “I have no confidence and trust in Avalon.”

Kim originally asked at a Sept. 12 press conference that Avalon be suspended as the manager of the Okutsu facility, but he stressed in an interview Tuesday that he is now demanding that Gov. David Ige permanently remove and replace the company.

Yukio Okutsu Veterans Home in Hilo is the site of a large outbreak of COVID-19. Photo: Tim Wright
The Yukio Okutsu Veterans Home in Hilo is the site of the largest outbreak of COVID-19 in Hawaii. Tim Wright/Civil Beat/2020

“In only a short period of time, approximately a one (1) month period, twenty-four (24) veterans from the Yukio Okutsu State Veterans Home died with positive test results for COVID- 19,” Kim wrote in his letter to Ige, dated Monday. “This is tragic, and unacceptable.”

Kim specifically cited a report from the Department of Veterans Affairs that was released publicly on Friday that noted failures to properly “cohort” or separate residents who might have been exposed to COVID-19 from those who were not, and a “lack of adequate infection control.”

Kim praised the staff at Okutsu, saying many of them were “A-plus” in their efforts and their commitment to the well-being of the residents of the veterans home.

However, the VA report concluded that “there was very little evidence of proactive preparation/planning for COVID.” It also identified a variety of problems, including findings that residents sometimes wandered in the facility hallways and did not always wear masks when they were outside of their rooms.

Kim said in his letter that a federally sponsored “tiger team” is now in Hilo to train staff and make changes in the operation of the Okutsu home, and that team is “fully capable in managing the Veterans Home until other arrangements are finalized.”

Allison Griffiths, spokeswoman and vice president for legal affairs for Avalon Health Care Management Inc., did not respond directly to Kim’s letter to Ige, but said in a written statement Monday that “we are very disappointed with how politically charged this situation has gotten.”

“The lack of collaboration and support by the Department of Health and other state agencies is unprecedented,” Griffiths wrote. “In every other state in which we operate, the state Department of Health has offered support, guidance, collaboration, PPE, testing, etc. to our facilities as the common goal among all involved is the health and safety of the residents and the community.”

Kim replied that “In other areas, I sure hope their performance is better than what it was here.”

As for the allegation that Hawaii officials have politicized the crisis at Okutsu, Kim said that it was “only because of the failure of Avalon that I had to revert to the power of politics to get action here. If she is claiming that Veterans Affairs is being political, I will just say, ‘Wow.’”

Kim said the Ige administration has not yet responded to his Monday letter.

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