New Year’s Day brought the death of Carl Stephens’ only son.
Ozell Stephens Jr. suffered a stroke on Nov. 2. He was released from the hospital three weeks later and was recovering at a rehab facility. The 55-year-old still wasn’t able to walk as the new year approached, but could speak clearly. He called his mother every evening to say goodnight.
“I’d ask him how he was feeling and he’d say ‘Good,’” Carl said. “He talked about wanting to come home.”
On Jan. 1, Ozell was rushed from the rehab facility to Sarasota Memorial Hospital with a fever. Carl went to see her son at the hospital, where a doctor told her he had COVID-19, which is listed as the probable cause of his death in medical examiner records.
“With the weakened state of the stroke and he was a diabetic, he just couldn’t fight it off,” Carl said.
Ozell appears to be the first COVID-19 death of 2021 in Sarasota County. Many more have followed.
The New Year did not bring relief from the pandemic locally. In fact, it has only grown worse in recent weeks, pushing the number of COVID-19 deaths to a once unimaginable level.
This week Sarasota and Manatee counties surpassed 1,000 combined deaths, a staggering figure that would’ve been unthinkable at this point last year but has become the new reality for a region that, like Florida and most of the nation, has been hit hard by the virus.
District 12 Medical Examiner Dr. Russell Vega, who investigates deaths in Sarasota, Manatee and DeSoto counties, said the current level of coronavirus cases and deaths in the region is concerning.
“Those numbers are scary,” Vega said, adding: “They’re not going to go down anytime immediately.”
The disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus has killed roughly one out of every 837 people in the two-county region. That’s more than two full 747 airplanes.
COVID-19 is now the third leading cause of death in both Sarasota and Manatee, behind only cancer and heart disease.
Local doctors say they are getting better at treating COVID-19, and new therapies also are helping save lives and get people out of the hospital more quickly. The local hospital system has a large number of COVID-19 patients – a combined 214 in Sarasota and Manatee Thursday – but so far has been able to manage the cases without being overwhelmed.
The arrival of vaccines also is offering hope.
But high levels of disease and death are taking a toll on the community, putting a strain on health care workers and leading to a growing number of grieving family members. Medical professionals are urging the public not to let down its guard.
“The numbers are increasing and now is the time to be most cautious,” said Dr. Janine Mylett, who treats COVID-19 patients at Doctors Hospital of Sarasota. “Now is the time to not go out to social gatherings. Now is the time to be washing your hands and wearing a mask and minimizing your risk of getting the virus or sharing the virus. Now is the time.”
Deaths add up
Among the first to die locally was an acclaimed playwright, Terrence McNally, who succumbed to COVID-19 at Sarasota Memorial Hospital in March.
Ozell Stephens Jr. is among the most recent deaths.
In between, the virus touched practically every corner of the community.
Congressman Vern Buchanan lost his aide, Gary Tibbetts, to COVID-19. Sarasota High School lost a beloved teacher and coach, Robert Shackelford. The agriculture community lost well-known Myakka City dairy farmer Farren Dakin.
Many other deaths went unnoticed beyond family and friends.
The youngest to die in Sarasota or Manatee was a 17-year-old who still hasn’t been identified publicly. Among the oldest is 104-year-old Betty Holland, who died at a Sarasota nursing home in July. Holland was born in 1916, two years before the last big pandemic, the Spanish Flu.
Some died at home. A 42-year-old was found unresponsive on his couch. Another man died in his chair just as paramedics arrived. Others died in nursing homes. Many more died at local hospitals hooked up to ventilators.
The disease makes it difficult to breathe and starves the body of oxygen. People slowly suffocate. Patients on ventilators are sedated so they don’t feel pain but “that’s still not a good way to go,” Mylett said.
Because they are contagious, loved ones can’t be there to hold a hand and say goodbye.
“It’s really hard on the family,” Mylett said.
Shock and grief
Carl Stephens saw her son alive one last time through a glass window at the hospital. His death left her shaken.
“I’ve been in such shock and grief,” Carl said recently as she sat on the front porch of her home across the street from Booker High School and recounted her son’s life.
Older people and those with underlying health conditions are much more likely to die of the virus.
Individuals 65 and older account for 84% of deaths in Sarasota and Manatee. More than a third of the dead were 85 or older.
Only one person younger than 28 has died of COVID-19 in the region. There have been 12 people younger than 40 (1% of the deaths) who succumbed to the disease in Sarasota and Manatee and 38 people younger than 50. But Mylett has found that the impact of the disease can be unpredictable.
“The problem is you never can predict who will survive it and who won’t,” she said. “We’ve had people with a lot of comorbidities (underlying health conditions) who do fine and others who are otherwise healthy and die. That’s the part of it we still don’t understand.”
Many of the younger individuals who died locally of COVID-19 are minorities, especially Blacks and Hispanics. The local numbers fit with national trends that indicate COVID-19 has hit minority communities especially hard.
Dr. Joseph Seaman, a critical care pulmonologist at Sarasota Memorial who has treated many COVID-19 patients, said many of the severely ill minority patients he has treated have underlying health conditions that haven’t been treated.
“Most of those folks did not have good access to good medical care so they came in with out of control medical conditions that had not been managed, or they had never seen a doctor in decades,” he said.
The number of deaths continues to grow as the virus becomes more rampant in the community.
December was the worst month for new coronavirus infections in Sarasota County and the second worst month in Manatee County.
January already is on pace to be even worse.
The rolling seven-day average of new cases reached the highest level on record in both Sarasota and Manatee in recent days, with the two counties currently averaging over 400 new cases a day combined.
Chuck Henry, the health officer for the Florida Department of Health’s Sarasota County office, told the County Commission Wednesday that the steep rise in cases is “a bit alarming.”
The increase in infections has led to an influx of COVID-19 hospital patients in recent weeks.
“The numbers of patients we’re seeing with COVID is certainly the highest so far,” Mylett said. “There’s no question we’re seeing a large influx of numbers in general.”
The number of COVID-19 patients in Manatee County hospitals has more than tripled since early November, and the number of patients in Sarasota County hospitals has more the doubled.
Sarasota Memorial had 80 COVID-19 patients Wednesday, compared to just 14 in late September.
Hospitals in Sarasota and Manatee have been able to manage the influx so far, in part by stabilizing and discharging COVID-19 patients more quickly. Shorter hospital stays have helped free up beds.
“We now know the tempo of the illness,” Seaman said. “If we can stabilize patients we don’t have to keep them in the hospital for two weeks.”
Both Seaman and Mylett said new treatments are improving patient outcomes. Mylett said the use of steroids on certain patients has significantly decreased mortality.
Seaman said a cocktail of drugs delivered at the right time has proven effective if patients seek medical care quickly enough. Some patients have shown “pretty dramatic improvements,” he said.
Yet state officials have reported more than 330 COVID-19 additional deaths in Sarasota and Manatee counties just since the beginning of November.
“The prevalence of the disease in the community has gotten so large that even though I think we have gotten better at treating it…. The number of fatalities continues to stay high because there’s so much disease in the community,” Vega said.
While local hospitals have been able to keep up with the surge in cases, Seaman said the virus has taken a toll on health care workers. Carrying for COVID-19 patients takes more time because of the personal protective equipment requirements. The risk of contracting the virus also makes it more nerve wracking.
“The wear and tear on the staff – it’s onerous, it’s time-consuming, you’re worried about taking it home, you’re worried about yourself,” Seaman said. “I tell you, I’m so proud of the staff here. The nurses have been troopers. They’ve done an amazing job with patients and so have the rest of the medical staff. They suit up and go into the rooms and don’t think twice about taking care of these folks.”
But Seaman said everyone he works with also is ready to move on.
“Everyone wants this gone,” he said.
That’s unlikely without a concerted community effort to contain the virus and get people vaccinated.
Masks and vaccines
As of Thursday nearly 33,000 people in Sarasota and Manatee counties have been vaccinated out of a population of more than 800,000.
Many of Seaman’s patients are eager to get the vaccine, but others are skeptical and another group is highly resistant to vaccination. He noted that several million people already have been vaccinated with largely minimal side effects.
“We need to get more people to get the vaccines because once we get vaccinated for it we’ll see less illness,” he said.
It will take months before the vaccine is widely distributed, though. Left unchecked, the virus could kill many more people in that time period.
Seaman urges people to wear masks when they can’t socially distance. He said masks have become “way too political.”
“When you’re in an environment where you can’t stay more than six feet away from someone you should have a mask on,” he said, adding the importance of mask-wearing in such settings as a means of controlling the virus “cannot be understated.”
Vega urged people to stay vigilant while vaccine distribution ramps up.
“Just hang in there for a little bit longer,” he said. “That’s my bottom line. Just hang in there for a little bit longer.”
‘This is not the end of it’
A few days after burying her son in a small graveside service, Carl Stephens sat on her porch wearing a surgical mask and talked about a man who was gentle and quiet and never lost his childhood love for airplanes.
Ozell’s father, the former principal at Emma E. Booker Elementary School, took his son to the airport when he was very young. The roar of the jet engines frightened him at first, but he came to enjoy watching the planes with his father.
“Everybody knew them at the airport,” said Carl, a longtime teacher in Sarasota schools.
Ozell worked at a security company but his real passion was airplanes. The 55-year-old was so well regarded in the local airplane spotting community that there is a push to name the spotting area near Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport after him.
Ozell found a community of fellow airplane enthusiasts among the SRQ Spotters group. They gathered near the airport to watch the planes and take pictures.
“It is impossible to think of SRQ without thinking of Oz,” wrote a member of the group on Facebook.
The comment was one of many that Carl had printed out. She held them in her hand as she talked about her son.
“He was very quiet, polite, courteous,” Carl said, her voice starting to crack. “He was a good young man.”
Ozell appears to have contracted COVID-19 at his rehab facility, where he had been living for more than a month without leaving the building. Carl knew that there were infected individuals at the facility, but she was told her son was “on the far, other side of the building away from it.”
“He couldn’t get out of the bed, so I don’t know how he contracted it,” she said.
Carl couldn’t visit the rehab facility and wasn’t told Ozell had COVID-19 until the day he died at Sarasota Memorial. She had been praying her son wouldn’t get it, and wept when she found out he had. She knows her family won’t be the last to suffer.
“Everybody knows this is deadly and this is not the end of it,” she said.