The Latest: Turning The Corner? 0 Deaths, 80 New Cases; Death Toll At Hilo Veterans Home Rises To 12

Sep 14, 2020

Updated: 9/14/2020, 12;15 p.m.

The state Department of Health today reported no new deaths and 80 COVID-19 cases, the first time the number of daily infections has fallen below 100 in recent days.

The latest counts mean the state death toll stands at 99 and the total number of cases to 10,779. 

There have now been 9,723 cases on Oahu, 594 on Hawaii Island, 378 for Maui County, and 58 on Kauai. Twenty-six residents were diagnosed out of state. One case was removed from Oahu and one recategorized from Oahu to Maui due to updated information.

Although new cases have been falling as Oahu -- where most of the infections have occurred -- remains under a stay-at-home, work from home order through Sept. 23. Solo activity only is allowed at beaches, parks and trails. 

Free surge testing is in its final day on Oahu, including at Aloha Stadium from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Department of Transportation Harbors Division, 521 Ala Moana Blvd., 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. 

See the website doineedacovid19test.com for other locations. Participants can register on the website or walk up.

Two new deaths bring toll at Hilo vetrans home to 12

A dozen people have now died of COVID-19 at the Yukio Okutsu State Veterans Home in Hilo. The Hilo Medical Center reported yesterday that two more residents were added to the death toll at the veterans home.

A total of 66 residents and 28 staff have tested positive for the virus at the veterans home, operated by Utah-based Avalon Health Care Group. Four residents are hospitalized at the medical center and 33 residents are being cared for in the veterans home's COVID-designated area.

Over the weekend, Hilo Medical Center also reported it had one death due to COVID-19 unrelated to the nursing home. The hospital has suspended most visits.

The number of patients at the medical center testing positive for the virus stood at 18, with six in the ICU unit and 12 in its COVID unit.

Hawaii Sen. Brian Schatz has written a letter Friday to Avalon Health Care CEO Randy Kirton calling on the Utah-based company to improve its infection controls.

Schatz noted that the company has had COVID outbreaks in all three of its Hawaii-managed nuring homes.

Besides the Hilo veterans home, the company also operates the Hale Nani Rehabilitation & Nursing Center and Avalon Care Center on Oahu.

"Given that outbreaks have occurred at all three of Avalon's facilities in Hawai‘i, I am alarmed that Avalon's facilities are not able to adequately protect its residents and staff," the senator said.

"Therefore, I urge you to immediately review the practices, and in particular the staffing and infection control practices, at your facilities in Hawai‘i and in other states to identify and resolve any deficiencies that could result in the spread of COVID-19."

Avalon Health Care has not responded to HPR's request for comment.

A federal team from the Department of Veterans Affairs is also assessing the outbreak at the veterans home at Schatz' request.

The senator has been critical of the county's and state's lack of urgency in addressing the outbreak at the veterans home that he described as a public emergency.

Two in lieutenant governor's security detail test positive

Two deputy sheriffs assigned to Lt. Gov. Josh Green's security detail have now tested positive for COVID-19, the state Department of Public Safety reported yesterday. Green has been in quarantine since learning he tested positive for the virus Friday evening. A staff member in his office was the first to get back a positive last week.

Green said yesterday he was feeling tired and had a cough, but was otherwise alright.

"I don't have aches or pains right now, I haven't had any trouble breathing. Everyone experiences this differently. Some people get really sick. Some people don't get sick at all," he reported in his daily Instagram update. He said his pulse ox, a measure of oxygen saturation in his blood, was 99%, "which is great." 

He said the isolation has been the most challenging aspect of his quarantine, which is keeping him away from his family and friends. 

"I'm in touch with my doctors and I'm really just grateful to be feeling okay. But this is something to take seriously. This is a very serious virus," he said.

The public safety department said the second deputy sheriff on Green's detail last worked on Thursday. The test result for the first deputy sheriff was reported on Friday. The Department of Health was notified on Friday for contact tracing purposes.

In its fourth round of testing at the Oahu Community Correctional Center, department reported Saturday that 6 inmates tested positive out of 132 test results received and all 16 staff results were negative. The department said the results show that efforts to contain the outbreak at the facility are working.

There have now been 292 OCCC inmates who have tested positive, 14 of whom are active. Eighty-two staff have tested positive and 34 are active.

Dole Middle School cases prompts call for quicker contact tracing

State Superintendent Christina Kishimoto wants the Department of Health to move faster in launching COVID-19 contacting tracing for the schools.

Kishimoto told state senators last week that the DOE collected its own information on an outbreak at the Dole Middle School in Kalihi while it waited on the health department.

The state teachers union says one staff member died Wednesday after quarantining at home because of COVID cases at Dole, although the cause of death has not been confirmed.

At least two employees at the school and one student have tested positive for the virus.

"We have our DOE team that's a rapid response team. I think for us we need someone from DOH that sits on our rapid response team in order to ensure that both processes are happening in tandem very quickly and right now they're on different timelines and that's a struggle we have," Kishimoto said. "

So there is a course correction that has to be done procedurally on that."

State Sen. Donna Mercado Kim who represents Kalihi said she doesn't understand why -- six months into the pandemic -- there is still confusion about what procedures to follow in dealing with COVID cases.

UH budget plans could cut programs, reorganize departments 

The University of Hawaii is facing a financial crisis brought on by COVID-19 that could mean major cuts in programs and a reorganization of departments.

In a statement Friday, UH Manoa Provost Michael Bruno said the cuts in state funds for the university haven't been announced yet, but they will be significantly larger than during the Great Recession.

The university is expecting a loss in net operating  income of about $70 million in the current fiscal year.

UH officials have been preparing since March with a hiring freeze and restrictions in spending and executive salaries. Now, it'll have to do more. UH units have been told to plan for cuts from 5 to 15 percent.

That may mean eliminating low-enrollment academic programs and reorganizing departments.

Students who start a program designated to close will be allowed to finish up their studies.

The restructuring is expected to begin in July 2021 and take several years to complete.

The UH Board of Regents is expected to take up the budget among other agenda items during a virtual meeting at 8:30 a.m. Thursday via a viewable livesteam.

Kauai polystyrene ban is last in state, but advocates want more action

Every county in the state has now passed a measure banning polystyrene containers but some believe more should be done.

The Kauai County Council last week was the last to approve a prohibition on the use and sale of food containers like Styrofoam.

If signed by Mayor Derek Kawakami, the measure will take effect in January 2022.

The environmental group Beach Environmental Awareness Campaign Hawaii applauded the Kauai Council’s actions. But Suzanne Frazer, the group’s co-founder, says more could be done to protect the state’s ecosystem.

"Ban things like Styrofoam under roofing shingles, and plastic fences, microbeads," she said. "There are many harmful items made from plastic that need banning at the state level. And so far, the state has only done one thing in the past 14 years – and that’s pass a smoking ban at all state parks."

Frazer says on the county level, she would like to see Kauai and Hawaii counties follow Maui and Honolulu in banning other disposable plastic for food and drinks.

Oahu’s ban on polystyrene containers takes effect in January 2022.

--HPR's Casey Harlow

This is a developing story. Please check back for upates. Editor's note: We’d like to hear how you’re coping with the latest COVID-19 developments and the state's phased reopening. You can call our talkback line at 808-792-8217. Or e-mail us at talkback@hawaiipublicradio.org.