VANCOUVER, Wash. — “They were gracious, they were kind, they were funny, and they loved us.”
That is how Michelle Taylor, of Vancouver, Washington, described her parents, Merle Kenneth Tofte, 86, and Delores Ruth “Dee” Tofte.
The elderly couple, who were hospitalized with COVID-19, died five hours apart March 16 at Peacehealth Southwest Medical Center. According to KATU in Portland, they died less than a month after celebrating Dee Tofte’s 85th birthday on Feb. 28.
Taylor wrote on Facebook that her parents were the first and second coronavirus deaths in Clark County.
The Clark County Department of Public Health confirmed that the Toftes were the county’s first COVID-19 deaths.
“One patient was a resident at a small adult family home. All residents and staff at the adult family home are considered close contacts and have been quarantined,” a statement from the county said. “The other patient was a resident at Van Mall, an assisted and independent living community. Public Health has identified all close contacts at Van Mall. They have been quarantined.”
During a news conference streamed live on March 17, Dr. Alan Melnick, Clark County health officer and public health director, said the deaths were especially tragic because they were of a married couple.
“This is really a horrible tragedy, and our thoughts and prayers are with family members,” Melnick said.
Watch the news conference below.
Taylor was also quarantined because of her close physical contact with her parents prior to their diagnosis. Her time in quarantine was due to expire Thursday.
“I am in quarantine until March 26th. I can’t be with my loved ones,” Taylor wrote Monday. “I can’t comfort my children whom have lost their grandparents. I can’t hold a service for my parents or attend their burial.”
Taylor wrote that her parents, who KATU reported did not leave home much, are believed to have contracted the virus through community spread. She said she wanted their story to be a lesson for others to follow health officials’ recommendations and stay home.
“I wanted time and privacy to grieve, but if their story can save a life, it needs to be told,” she wrote. “Please share this. I love you, Mom and Dad.”
KATU reported that the Toftes, who were hospitalized with breathing difficulty, a cough and fever, are survived by five children and several grandchildren. The family was able to say goodbye to the couple, despite their isolation, with help from staff members at Peacehealth.
“They set up a FaceTime call with my parents, each in a different room, with a chaplain with their grandchildren and children so we could all say goodbye to them,” Taylor told the news station. “We will all be forever grateful for that.”
According to their joint obituary, the couple, who met in the 1960s after previous marriages, owned a printing business. Merle Tofte was also a musician who taught himself to play the guitar at a young age.
He could not read music but wrote songs and played multiple instruments, his family said.
“Over the years, he played lead guitar in several bands,” the obituary said. “Merle loved to share the following story: In 1955, his band was playing at Cedarville Park. One night, the famous Willie Nelson came in and sat in with the band.
“(Nelson) continued to show up and sit in with the band for several nights. Merle thought he was after his job, so he told him to go to Tiny Dumont’s, because they were looking for a guitar player. Willie went there and landed the job. Merle would chuckle and say, ‘I can honestly say that I got Willie Nelson a job.’”
Dee Tofte was a stay-at-home mom who “relished her role to the fullest,” the obituary said.
“(It was) a role that would continue with her grandchildren,” the obituary continued. “Dee planned the family gatherings, pool parties, music parties and family reunions. Dee’s greatest joy was spending time with her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.”
Dee Tofte was her husband’s biggest fan but craved being on stage with him.
“She learned to play the drums, and eventually learned to play the keyboard,” the obituary said. “They formed the band ‘Dee and Mee.’ They played at various Eagles lodges, parties, events, and cruise ships, etc. When Dee’s health declined, Merle cared for her.”
The couple’s devotion grew stronger over their 52 years together, their family said.
“He visited her every evening once they could no longer be together,” the obituary said. “Music continued to play a role in their lives. They often sang their favorite song to family and friends.
“Merle wrote a simple song for Dee last month. He taught her the words and they would sing it together. Kissing, hugging, holding hands and cuddling were four of their favorite things to do.”
The couple’s family said their love was an inspiration for all who witnessed it. Their deaths are a stunning blow to their loved ones.
“(The pain) is unbearable at times,” Taylor told KATU. “I just want people to take (coronavirus) seriously. That’s what I want.
“I never thought this would happen to our family. I know that sharing their story is helping people really understand that this virus is taking people’s lives.”