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Daughter speaks out about father’s death at Hilo veterans home

William Zerfuss enjoyed the four years he spent in the U.S. Navy, said his daughter, Puako resident Diane O’Toole.

A Korean War veteran, Zerfuss was a printer on a naval repair ship.

Often wearing his U.S.S. Shenandoah hat and always making jokes, Zerfuss was generous with his time, his daughter said. A huge fan of the New York Jets, he held season tickets and would take anyone who wanted to go with him.

“He just loved to help people.”

Zerfuss, 87, is believed to be the first of 27 residents of Yukio Okutsu State Veterans Home who died from a recent COVID-19 outbreak in the facility.

According to O’Toole, Zerfuss had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease as a result of his time in the service, as well as other health issues.

He moved to Yukio Okutsu for rehabilitation in April after breaking his hip.

O’Toole said her father, who had been living in a West Hawaii assisted living facility, wasn’t going to stay at the Hilo veterans home permanently, but never recovered enough from subsequent health issues to return to assisted living.

He was diagnosed with the novel coronavirus on Aug. 25, two days after O’Toole said the family was notified that two employees there had tested positive for the disease.

When Zerfuss was transported to Hilo Medical Center on Aug. 25, O’Toole said her father’s oxygen levels were a dangerously low 37%.

For Zerfuss, a 93% oxygen level was considered “good” because of his COPD.

A doctor told O’Toole her father had severe multilobar pneumonia, she said.

“It (COVID-19) was everywhere. It was so severe, he probably had it for days before. I don’t know how nobody noticed.”

Zerfuss died Aug. 29.

“Of course, I’m upset,” O’Toole said of her father’s death. “My dad wasn’t ready to go. Every time they would tell me something was wrong, (that) this is it, it was never it. He was always coming back.”

But once he contracted COVID-19, Zerfuss “couldn’t open his eyes pretty much again,” she said.

Although the veterans home had locked down to visitors in March in response to the pandemic, O’Toole said she was able to see her father three times at the facility — once when it was previously thought he was going to die, a second time after his health began to decline again, and a third time after O’Toole’s sister died of a massive stroke.

“They let me in to tell my father, in person, that she had passed.”

O’Toole said communication with facility was a problem.

While some employees were better than others when it came to providing updates, O’Toole said there wasn’t clarity about who to contact for more information.

O’Toole said she has read the recent critical reports issued regarding the facility’s handling of the outbreak.

“It was really disheartening to see that three weeks after my father contracted the virus, people were still having new cases,” she said. “… From those reports, things were still highly contagious there. I’m just heartbroken for the people who had to die after my father. It shouldn’t have continued in such a widespread outbreak.”

Born in Brooklyn, Zerfuss lived on Long Island before moving to Hawaii — where O’Toole and her husband have lived for more than 25 years — in 2018.

O’Toole said many people looked up to her father.

“He was good looking, like a Dean Martin kind of guy.”

After his brother died, O’Toole said Zerfuss was a father and grandfather figure for his brother’s children.

“He was always just so nice and fun to be around,” O’Toole said. “He had this crazy sense of humor that was just enjoyable to be around.”

She spoke of his generosity, and told a story of how a neighbor and a girlfriend took Zerfuss to lunch for his birthday, but always a gentleman, he would not let them pay for the meal when the bill came.

“He paid for their lunch when they were taking him out for his birthday.”

Lawyers for the family are working to file a medical inquiry complaint.

“I think the administrators would have learned from what happened on the mainland and kept their residents safe and employees safe,” O’Toole said. “It’s just not right.”

Seventy-one residents and 35 employees at the veterans home have tested positive for COVID-19 since late August, and 27 residents have died.

As of Friday, 42 residents and 33 employees have recovered. No residents were receiving care at the facility, and one resident was hospitalized at Hilo Medical Center.

Email Stephanie Salmons at ssalmons@hawaiitribune-herald.com.
Source: Hawaii Tribune Herald

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