‘He’s more than a number’: Veteran dies after contracting COVID-19 at long-term care facility

Andrew Ohar’s daughter wants state agencies to hold facilities experiencing large scale outbreaks to account

Andrew Ohar is one of 1,085 people who have died from complications of COVID-19 in Florida long-term care as of Monday. It’s a statistic that his daughter, Robin, has grown to despise.

Her father – the Marine veteran who fought in World War II, supported five children and stayed devoted to his wife of 57 years until her death – was to some a line in an Excel sheet.

“You want to scream out that my family, my loved one is more than a number, they’re more than a statistic,” said Robin Ohar. “As far as COVID-19 is concerned, he’s Clay County No. 17. And he’s more than a number.”

Andrew Ohar contracted the novel coronavirus while a resident at Heartland Health Care Center of Orange Park, where nearly 40 residents tested positive.

Twenty-two of those residents have recovered, according to figures released by Heartland Health Care’s corporate office, but state data shows four residents who tested positive died from complications of the virus.

Robin Ohar said, at first, her father didn’t show any symptoms after he tested positive for COVID-19. She said the virus soon transformed her strong, tough father into a frail man struggling for air.

“He went very quickly and he didn’t just go quickly peacefully. He suffered,” said Robin Ohar. “He suffocated basically.”

She continued: “It wasn’t an event where it just happened, you know, it was a process. And it was a torturous process, you know, we’re getting down to one breath a minute. And like I said, basically suffocating. My father went from being 190 pounds to the time of his death being 125 pounds."

Early on during the coronavirus pandemic, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on March 9 signed an executive order banning visitors from long-term care facilities, like assisted living facilities and nursing homes. The hope was to slow the spread of the coronavirus to the state’s most vulnerable population.

Heartland Health Care ended visitors but admittedly allowed new admissions up until they discovered their first resident tested positive for COVID-19 on April 5.

“Gov. DeSantis made a courageous move and locked down nursing facilities, memory care facilities and said: no visitation, no one coming in,” said Robin Ohar. “There were admissions coming into Heartland and they have to answer to that, in moral and ethical ways.”

Heartland Health Care Vice President Julie Beckert said the only new admissions taken were patients who transferred out due to a change in condition and returned once stable. Beckert said the patients would have been tested, diagnosed as negative and then returned to isolation.

“We followed CMS (Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services) and CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidelines for COVID-19 admissions and infection control processes. We realize this virus is dangerous to our population and have many precautions in place, including limiting authorized visitors, using full PPE (personal protective equipment) when caring for COVID-19 positive patients, universal masking and goggles for all staff in the center and deep sanitizing of the center,” said Beckert.

Heartland Health Care officials did not have an answer for how the virus made its way into the facility.

“There is not a flawless way to determine how COVID-19 has entered a facility. If it is in the community, it will find its way into a center,” said Beckert. “We realize that is frustrating and concerning for families, but there are many ways the virus could enter the center no matter how good our infection control processes are.”

Beckert said the facility has tested all the residents in the facility twice, most recently last week.

Robin Ohar wants state agencies, like Agency for Health Care Administration, to hold facilities experiencing large scale outbreaks to account.

“My father did a lot in his past to help protect this country and protect his family by serving in the military and I feel like toward the end enough was not done to better kept him safe” said Robin Ohar.

Robin Ohar was the only of her five siblings to be able to be with her father in person on the day he passed. She was fully dressed in the same protective gear given to medical staff when they interact with COVID-19 patients and did a video chat with her siblings.

"Letting him know that we were there and that we all loved him, and if he needed to, it was OK to go, that we were safe, we were good kids,” said Robin Ohar. “He died four hours later.”

Robin Ohar is now moving on to try to connect with other families who have lost loved ones to this COVID-19 – and those that have survived it through a Facebook group titled “More than a number.”

“If you haven’t experienced this, there’s no way for me to articulate what it’s like. If you’ve been there with your family member you know exactly what I’m talking about. I don’t have to say a word. You know, we can just give each other a look,” said Robin Ohar. “I think that’s important to be able to communicate with other family families that have gone through this, and even family members that have their level of contact to the illness and survive. I think there’s needs to be an element of hope."

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