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Kula Hospital worker tests positive for virus

Extra precautions taken at long-term care facility

A security guard, stationed below the entrance to Kula Hospital, waves a car through Tuesday afternoon. Access has been restricted to the long-term care facility in Keokea since the outbreak of coronavirus. A health care worker at the hospital has tested positive for the virus. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photos

The latest Maui Health System worker to test positive for the coronavirus is a physical therapist at Kula Hospital, a long-term care facility serving those at the highest risk for the virus.

The information released Tuesday comes in the wake of a growing cluster of cases that started in mid-March at Maui Memorial Medical Center, another hospital operated by Kaiser-affiliated Maui Health.

In all, 36 people (27 employees and nine patients) associated with Maui Health have tested positive for the coronavirus, Maui Health CEO Mike Rembis said in an email to employees on Monday afternoon.

With reports on the Mainland of clusters of deaths at long-term care homes for the elderly, state Health Director Dr. Bruce Anderson said Tuesday that extra precautions “absolutely” are being taken at Kula Hospital since the physical therapist recently tested positive for the coronavirus.

“All long-term care facilities are now dealing with this issue,” he said in response to a question from The Maui News at a news conference on Oahu. “Obviously, they have a frail, vulnerable population. They are implementing stringent precautions.”

A physical therapist at Kula Hospital, shown in this photo taken in 2013, has tested positive for the coronavirus and is in quarantine without symptoms.

Measures include restricting visitors, Anderson said, adding that the state DOH has been consulting with the hospital and other facilities treating elderly patients to provide guidance.

The Kula Hospital employee was showing no symptoms when the individual participated last week in free testing in Wailuku and was found to be positive for COVID-19, Rembis said in the email. The staff member currently is at home in quarantine without symptoms.

Anderson said 16 people, who were believed to have been exposed to the worker, have been tested for the virus. Fifteen tests have come back negative; one result was inconclusive and is being rerun.

No Kula Hospital patients are showing any symptoms, Rembis said.

The cluster at Maui Health facilities has drawn concern from the community, prompting the circulation of a petition calling for the resignation of four top leaders at the hospitals, including Rembis.

A Maui Health official did not confirm whether the 36 cases mentioned by Rembis included the Kula Hospital case. Maui Health has tested 219 patients and 90 employees for COVID-19; some results are still pending, Rembis said in the email.

Other measures Maui Health is taking in the wake of the cluster is asking the Kaiser Permanente national command center and infectious disease experts to come to Maui to help in response to the pandemic, Rembis said in the email. They will focus on assessing Maui Health operations, expanding the existing response team and formalizing a Maui Health command center, and implementing a proactive plan to transparently communicate with the Maui community.

Rembis did not respond to requests for an interview Tuesday.

Anderson offered a defense of Maui Health at Tuesday’s news conference, saying that the hospital operator has done everything it can to ensure staff and patient safety since the cluster emerged.

He was asked by The Maui News what Oahu hospitals, which are handling a larger volume of COVID-19 cases, are doing differently than Maui Memorial to prevent infections among health care workers. Anderson said that all Hawaii hospitals are doing what they can to keep infections at a minimum and that even the best hospitals could have an outbreak.

“And I have to say I am impressed with how much Maui Memorial has done since this outbreak to be sure they are not going to be seeing any additional transmission of disease in their facility,” he said. “They have identified the problems that I think existed, they’ve dealt with those well, there’s a good training program for all the staff to know what the policies and procedures are, and they are being provided (personal protective equipment) as necessary.”

Also Tuesday, state health officials reported two more cases of COVID-19 in Maui County as the statewide total rose to 517.

Across Hawaii, 13 new cases were reported, including six on Oahu, one on Hawaii island and four residents who were diagnosed out of state.

There are now 358 cases on Oahu, 88 cases in Maui County — including two on Molokai and none on Lanai — 41 cases on Hawaii island and 21 cases on Kauai. A total of six residents have been diagnosed out of state, and the residency of three cases is unknown.

There remain nine deaths statewide, three of them on Maui.

* Assistant City Editor Colleen Uechi contributed to this report. Kehaulani Cerizo can be reached at kcerizo@mauinews.com.

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