'It didn't have to happen this way': Daughter recalls Florida man's trepidatious COVID-19 decline
Even in his late 80s, Willie Stevens would change his grandchildren’s car oil.
The senior member of his small Marianna community at Jerusalem A.M.E. Church, Stevens was the local carpenter who'd teach budding woodworkers who then went off to start their own businesses.
But on July 27, Stevens died after being diagnosed with COVID-19. He was 94.
The diabetic man was transferred between four different medical facilities before his death, according to his family.
His family isn’t sure where he caught the virus. He wasn’t given masks in the first two facilities, his daughter Linda Hawthorne and son Willie H. Stevens said.
Until early July, their dad was staying at Marianna Health and Rehabilitation Center since his heart attack in November. He liked living at the nursing home, where several of his fellow senior friends were also staying.
But as the coronavirus started taking hold, Hawthorne and her brother began to worry. At the Highway 71 WalMart, she'd see nursing assistants from the rehabilitation center shopping and standing in line without wearing masks.
"They were my dad's CNAs. No masks, standing there talking. I have a mask on, but you don't," Hawthorne said. "You walk around all day long without a mask, and go back to work – and you're the one who gives my daddy a bath.”
On Thursday, workers inside City Hall off Green Street were also not wearing masks.
The county of about 48,300 residents has the highest number of COVID-19 deaths so far in the Big Bend at 32 deaths. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have reported Jackson and Gadsden Counties are among the nation's top 10 coronavirus hotspots.
As of Saturday morning, the state reported more than 1,550 have been diagnosed with the virus and more than 90 hospitalized in Jackson County. More than 650 of those cases and a death are connected to the Graceville Correctional Facility, and 250 cases and 27 deaths in the county are tied to long-term care facilities.
Department of Health officials directly attribute half the deaths to the rehabilitation center. Run by the City of Marianna, the 180-bed facility is tucked behind Jackson Hospital off Fifth Avenue. The state reports a total of 14 deaths there: 11 were residents, one was a staff member and two are listed as still "under investigation.”
Staff at MHRC redirected inquiries to Marianna City Manager, Jim Dean. He and his office did not return multiple requests for information.
MHRC's last Facebook post was June 25. The post showed photos of residents — a few unmasked — painting cardboard crosses during a craft day.
“I think there was some total irresponsibility and negligence,” Hawthorne said about MHRC. "There are procedures in place to follow – and I don’t think they followed them."
'There's a reason our sick numbers are rising'
In a lengthy, scathing complaint she posted to her public Facebook, one LPN at the city-run facility wrote she and her colleagues weren't receiving hazard pay.
"There’s a reason our sick numbers are rising and it’s spreading. Let me make it clear and paint you the ugly picture," wrote Rosanna Garrett. "First off the rule was you can’t come back until you have been cleared with 2 negative tests per CDC. Now it’s....oh you can have a positive result as long as you aren’t symptomatic within 10 days of your test."
She continued: "But hold the phone: I thought you can still be asymptomatic and still pass it up to 14 days or more ... aren’t we working with one of the most vulnerable immunity populations in the elderly?"
The LPN said administrators were instructing staff to re-use masks and didn't have N95 masks. Garrett told the Democrat by phone Friday she and her staff didn't have proper PPE.
"My main concern is I don’t feel like they’re taking the right precautions," she said. "They didn’t provide us with PPE until a lot of residents and staff started testing positive. This has been going on for months."
Hawthorne was told by workers that the first staff who tested positive were kitchen workers and housekeepers, which the facility called "indirect staff."
Hawthorne's brother Willie remembers visiting his dad and talking with him through the window. His dad and his dad's roommate, a kidney dialysis patient, were unmasked.
After staff began testing positive for the virus, Stevens was tested. Before his test results could return, staff transferred Stevens to Jackson Hospital July 8. They told his daughter the transfer was because he developed a 99-degree temperature.
"In my opinion it all started out with them being careless," Hawthorne said. The week her dad was transferred to Jackson Hospital, Hawthorne heard a nurse say "I got my PPE today," as Hawthorne talked to her dad on the phone.
But a discrepancy shows on MHRC paperwork Hawthorne received last week.
"On his paperwork that came from Marianna Health and Rehab, it said he was transferred to Jackson Hospital because he was 'lethargic,' " Hawthorne said. "(They) told me that he transferred because he had a 99-degree fever."
At Jackson Hospital, a rapid test returned positive. Later, Stevens' MHRC test finally came back. It was negative.
False negatives do occur. But Hawthorne is concerned her dad may have caught the virus somewhere along the way during the transfers.
After staying at Jackson Hospital for a week, nurses told Hawthorne he was being transferred to Pruitt Health, a COVID-19-patient isolation facility designated by the state.
"When they transferred my dad to Pruitt Health on that Sunday, I asked if I had a choice. They said 'no,'" Hawthorne said. "When he got transferred to Pruitt Health he was a little confused and concerned."
Her diabetic father hadn't been fed when he departed Jackson Hospital, she said. Hawthorne alerted nurses. It wasn't until 11 p.m. that staff fed him a sandwich.
"Any information that we’ve been given we had to inquire about. I had to be the one calling for updates," Hawthorne said. "We were not kept informed.”
A few days later, Hawthorne said her dad began to sound and look different when they'd chat on Google Duo.
"I could tell by his voice there was a drastic change in his condition," she said. "He was not the same his eyes. He had a dazed stare."
X-rays showed fluid in his lungs, and he was transferred again, this time to Capital Regional Medical Center in Tallahassee, Friday, July 17. He didn't need oxygen supplementation until a few days later. But in about a week, he became unresponsive.
"He could not talk. It looked like he was asleep," she said. By then, the doctor recommended hospice care. He died July 27.
Never got to see his church rebuilt
Sitting on the floral Victorian couch inside Vanns Funeral Home in Marianna Friday, Hawthorne remembered her father, the carpenter with the slow, staccato laugh. The humble dad who, in the 1960s, would braid her hair before school in the mornings, so her mom, a nurse, could sleep in after night-shifts. The man who'd jokingly sing "If it's not one thing, it's another," down the hallway after a disagreement with his wife.
Hawthorne and Willie lost their mom in January after blood clots developed in her lungs. Whether or not that was COVID-19-related is "questionable," she said.
Her dad, a handy woodworker and painter, lent his skills and was one of only two people to show up and help a neighbor build her Habitat for Humanity house.
The craftsman kept an eye on his Jerusalem A.M.E. church, which was leveled by monstrous Hurricane Michael. Each time he drove by, he scrutinized the redevelopments.
"I called him the inspector," Hawthorne said. He wanted to see that church standing once again. It was still in shambles when he was admitted into MHRC.
On her way back from visiting her mom's grave site one night, she noticed it had been rebuilt.
"He never got to see it. That’s one thing that broke my heart," Hawthorne said. "It did not have to happen this way."
Reach Nada Hassanein at email@example.com or on Twitter @nhassanein_.
This story originally published to tallahassee.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the USA TODAY Network - Florida.