Clark County’s first COVID-19 victims were man and wife who died hours apart

A 53-year love affair ended hours apart and floors away from each other at PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center

VANCOUVER — The end came suddenly for Merle and Delores “Dee” Tofte, and it came hours apart, at the hands of the same virus.

Merle and Dee Tofte were among the first fatalities related to COVID-19 in Clark County. Photo courtesy Michelle Taylor/Facebook
Merle and Dee Tofte were among the first fatalities related to COVID-19 in Clark County. Photo courtesy Michelle Taylor/Facebook

On Feb. 28, the family gathered to celebrate Dee’s 85th birthday. 

“The day was perfect,” daughter Lori Kohler told The Oregonian newspaper.

“Dee, who struggled with Parkinson’s disease, was not shaking,” she said. “She read her card, opened her gifts, and thanked each of her kids one by one.”

Kohler said Merle, 86, was also unusually spry that day, walking around with a cane, rather than his usual walker.

It was the last time they would be able to gather in person.

The couple lived apart, Merle at Van Mall senior living. Dee, who had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s, had been moved to an assisted living facility. The family isn’t sure where they contracted the virus.

“Dee never left her home,” Kohler said, “and Merle didn’t go anyplace other than to see her.”

By March 7, Dee was very ill and taken to PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center in Vancouver. The following Wednesday, Merle was also hospitalized with body aches, fever, and a severe cough.

Over the weekend, both of them took a turn for the worst. On Monday, the family was told the couple were expected to die within hours. They were allowed to FaceTime in order to say goodbye.

“The family was told that both were made comfortable and both could hear what was said to them,” Kohler said. “From three locations the family, five children, and four of their six grandchildren said their goodbyes, their final messages of love.”

“The grandchildren sang a song,” she said, “one that Merle and Dee would sing to each other often.”

A short time later the couple, whose obituary describes as “inseparable,” passed away, hours apart. 

She on the third floor. He on the fifth.

Grief in the age of COVID-19 is a lonely and complicated matter, as the family has had to find out the hard way.

“I can’t be with my loved ones,” wrote daughter Michelle Taylor on Facebook shortly after Dee and Merle died. “I can’t comfort my children whom have lost their grandparents. I can’t hold a service for my parents or attend their burial. Funeral homes are closed. It is believed they contracted COVID-19 through community spread.”

The family isn’t sure when they’ll be able to gather to celebrate the life of the couple whose favorite activities included “kissing, hugging, holding hands and cuddling.”

Dee Tofte’s 85th birthday in February was the last time the couple’s family was able to see them in person. Photo courtesy of Lori Kohler via Oregonlive.com
Dee Tofte’s 85th birthday in February was the last time the couple’s family was able to see them in person. Photo courtesy of Lori Kohler via Oregonlive.com

So far, of the six deaths related to COVID-19 in Clark County, all have been in people over the age of 70.

“Please keep yourself and your family safe, especially the elderly people,” Kohler said. “The COVID-19 virus does kill people.”

At that birthday party in February, Merle bought his wife a watch. Their children bought the couple matching pajamas.

“In the end,” Kohler said, “they were buried in their new pajamas, and Dee with her new watch on her arm.”

The Oregonian Newspaper contributed to this story. For more on the couple’s long history together, read their story here.

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