Vaccinated woman, father of young children among latest COVID-19 deaths in Sarasota/Manatee

Zac Anderson
Sarasota Herald-Tribune

Anita Smith was careful.

The 85-year-old Nokomis resident made sure to get the COVID-19 vaccine and rarely left her home during the pandemic.

“She was very, very mindful, very, very careful,” said Smith’s son, Noel Hudson. “She did everything possible to protect herself.”

It didn’t matter in the end, though.

Sarasota Memorial Hospital reported Friday that 82 patients have died of COVID-19 since June 1.

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Smith fell and broke her hip and needed surgery and rehabilitation. She tested positive for COVID-19 during the course of her medical treatments. One of Smith’s doctors initially thought she’d be ok.

“He felt like because she was fully vaccinated she would have a mild case of COVID but it did not turn out that way,” Hudson said.

Smith died on a Sunday earlier this month. Hudson was at her side in the hospice center, wearing full protective equipment, the uniform of those who sit watch over dying COVID-19 patients.  

Smith’s death was unusual in one way. Most of those who get critically ill from COVID-19 during this fourth wave of infection are unvaccinated.

Overall, though, there is little to be surprised about when COVID-19 claims another life in Florida. Such deaths have become depressingly common, and are happening at a scale that once seemed unimaginable, with Florida now up to 43,979 individuals swept away by the pandemic.

There were hopes that this latest wave of infections would not be so deadly, thanks to many of the most vulnerable individuals being vaccinated, and it’s still not clear whether the final death toll will be as bad as prior waves. But it seems likely, since hospitalizations – which typically precede deaths – have been hitting record highs.

While many Floridians are vaccinated, millions are not, and the virus is finding plenty of hosts to prey on, pushing the state into the throes of another terrible round of COVID-19 deaths, one brought on by a pandemic that seemed under control just a few short months ago but has come roaring back with even greater strength amid lagging vaccination efforts and the rise of the more contagious delta variant.

Rising toll of COVID-19 deaths

Statewide, the number of COVID-19 deaths jumped by 4,900 over the last month. Where Sarasota and Manatee counties stand is less clear.

The Florida Department of Health stopped reporting COVID-10 death data at the county level directly to the public on June 3. At that time Sarasota County had 844 COVID-19 deaths and Manatee County 689, for a combined 1,533.

The Herald-Tribune requested updated local death data from DOH headquarters in Tallahassee, and from DOH satellite offices in Manatee and Sarasota counties. Officials in Tallahassee ignored the request, but DOH Manatee reported that the county was up to 788 COVID-19 deaths as of Thursday, an increase of 99 deaths since June 3.

The Sarasota DOH office did not respond to the request for death data. Sarasota Memorial Hospital reported Friday that 82 patients have died of COVID-19 since June 1 and Venice Regional Bayfront Health reported Friday that 15 patients have died of COVID-19 since the beginning of June.

Sarasota Memorial is leasing a refrigerated trailer in case the hospital needs more space to store dead bodies amid the surge in COVID-19 deaths. It hasn’t been used so far.

A refrigerated trailer, surrounded by screened fencing, is parked behind Sarasota Memorial Hospital. Sarasota Memorial has been leasing a refrigerated trailer in case it needs more space to store dead bodies amid a wave of COVID-19 deaths, but would not confirm if this trailer is the one that would be used for body storage.

Preventable crisis

The rapidly increasing death toll is remarkable because many of the deaths are easily preventable with vaccination, said Dr. Russell Vega, the medical examiner for the region encompassing Sarasota, Manatee and DeSoto counties.

“I’ve never seen anything like this, so many deaths that are preventable,” Vega said.

While Smith’s death illustrates that the vaccine doesn’t offer complete protection, data shows it is incredibly effective at preventing hospitalization. As of Thursday, Sarasota Memorial estimated 88% of the hospital’s COVID-19 patients were unvaccinated.

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If vaccination efforts had kept up their initial pace instead of dropping off dramatically, “many of these deaths could have been prevented, much of this disease and death could have been prevented,” Vega said.

Other than the fact that so many of the deaths are preventable, the latest wave of COVID-19 mortality also is notable because a significant number of those dying are younger and healthier.

At Sarasota Memorial, about one in seven COVID-19 deaths is someone younger than 60. The youngest to die over the last two months was a 37-year-old.

Yet the majority of deaths still occur among seniors.

“Breakthrough infections are more common in the elderly and in those with compromised immune systems,” said Dr. Manuel Gordillo, an infectious disease expert at Sarasota Memorial. “The virus is smart. It’s been around for millions of years. It will find the easiest target, and that tends to be the elderly and the immunocompromised folks.”

Smith’s death highlights how the vaccine offers less protection for those who are older, frailer and have more health problems.

The mounting senior death toll from COVID-19 also is putting a spotlight on the senior vaccination rate, which Gov. Ron DeSantis has bragged about. About 87% of Floridians age 65 and older are vaccinated, but that still leaves a significant unvaccinated senior population.

There were 150,118 COVID-19 cases in Florida during third week of August and 17,197 were among people 65 and older. With 13% of individuals in that age group unvaccinated, that means roughly 2,235 of the seniors infected in Florida last week likely weren’t vaccinated.

“Vaccination is the only way to put an end to these surges,” Gordillo said.

The recent COVID-19 deaths in Sarasota County include a teacher, single mothers, a retired doctor and a young father with a third child on the way.

Here are some of their stories.

Christopher McConnell

A Sarasota father of two young sons with another another son on the way, McConnell was admitted to the hospital on July 17 “with trouble breathing from contracting covid,” according to a gofundme account set up to help his family that has raised more than $100,000 from nearly 1,000 donors, including a number of prominent Sarasota residents.

McConnell was on life support for more than three weeks “with major complications including organ failure.”

A gofundme account was set up to help the family of Christopher McConnell a Sarasota father who died of COVID-19 on Aug. 18. The account has raised more than $100,000.

“It was all too much for him to overcome, and he passed with his wife at his side on August 18,” according to the gofundme post.

McConnell is described in the post as “a talented artist with big dreams.”

Sally Fisher

A mother who enjoyed walking on the beach and “anything with a palm tree on it,” Fisher died of COVID-19 in Sarasota on Aug. 6, according to her obituary.

Originally from Ohio, the 62-year-old Fisher worked as a permitting coordinator at a heating and cooling company in Bradenton.

“She was a soccer mom for Cody for many years,” her obituary reads. “She also enjoyed crafting (ceramics, basket making, crocheting) and reading. Her greatest joy in life was being Cody’s mother.”

The obituary asks people to donate to her son’s college fund.

Ronald Sheff

After a successful business career, Sheff and his wife sold their home and set sail in their boat “Dream Aweigh” for a 17-year odyssey traveling “from Maine to the Caribbean, with friends and family often joining them on the boat and new friends made in every port,” according to his obituary.

Originally from New York, Sheff died of COVID-19 in Sarasota on Aug. 17 at the age of 96.

Sheff and his wife were married for 67 years. They “left the cruising life behind to settle in Sarasota” in 1993 and “made many new friends through their passion for ballroom dancing,” according to the obituary.

The couple enjoyed dancing to live music at Senior Friendship Center.

“In 2015 Ron and Janet were the poster children on the cover of the Senior Friendship Center annual report under the title, ‘A Long Life Worth Living,’ an apt epitaph for them both,” the obituary reads.

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Julius Stone

The son of “Polish immigrants who fled Russian Jewish oppression,” Dr. Julius Stone studied music and played tennis at the University of Minnesota before attending medical school and becoming a dermatologist, according to his obituary.

Stone died on Aug. 17 in Sarasota at the age of 102 “after a prolonged battle” with COVID-19. He served in the U.S. Public Health Service during World War II.

“Dr. Stone left the USPHS at the rank of Captain and established a dermatology practice in Macomb County Michigan in the mid 1950s until his retirement the year 2000 after more than 45 years of community service in which he cared for thousands of families,” his obituary reads.

Stone also maintained a lifelong love of music and composed “multiple pieces of classical music that were eventually trademarked and played for public consumption in Southeast Florida.”

Michelle Cook

A teacher with more than 20 years of classroom experience, Michelle Cook had accepted a fifth grade teaching job at a new school this year but fell ill with COVID-19 before school started and died at Sarasota Memorial Hospital Tuesday after six days on a ventilator.

Cook, 51, moved to Sarasota County as a child and lived in North Port, attended church and school in Englewood and graduated from Clearwater Christian College before embarking on a teaching career.

Sarasota teacher Michelle Cook died of COVID-19 this week.

The mother of two grown children had a passion for helping struggling students. She tutored an autistic child who was nonverbal this summer, taught summer classes at a school for children with disabilities and previously spent time teaching at the Triad Alternative School, a place for children who have struggled elsewhere.

“The thing that made her so good at that is she’s nonjudgmental, she’s the most forgiving person and just had the ability to accept people and students where they were,” said Cook’s sister, Bethanne Bearden.

Anita Smith

Her grandchildren called her “Nene” and she liked that. Anita Smith also liked country music, particularly Willie Nelson’s “Always on My Mind,” and was known for her fried chicken dinners with macaroni and cheese and “the best homemade biscuits ever baked,” according to her obituary.

A native of Indiana who lived in Kentucky for years and moved to Nokomis 13 years ago to be closer to one of her sons and his family, Smith’s life changed in a big way recently when she moved into an assisted living center. She was eager to have more of a social life.

Nokomis resident Anita Smith died recently of COVID-19.

“She was all excited about a new chapter in her life,” said Noel Hudson, one of Smith’s four sons. “She had just gotten an assisted living an apartment but she only made it two days in assisted living when she fell and broke her hip and she had to go in and get hip surgery and somewhere in this process she got COVID.”

There were multiple complications that likely made Smith more susceptible to COVID-19, including her age, her recent hip break and a problem she had with fluid building up in her heart.

“You add heart failure to hip surgery and catching COVID and being 85 years old, it’s a tough formula,” Hudson said.

There has been talk nationwide about vaccine mandates for health care workers, but Hudson said it’s a “thorny issue” and he can see both sides.

“I think it’s a natural human reaction when you’re stressed to want to make a firm decision but I don’t think that’s really within our grasp right now,” he said. “But I hate it for my mom.”