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Vancouver couple married for 52 years dies on the same day from coronavirus

Merle and Delores Tofte tested positive for COVID-19 on March 13 and both died three days later.
Credit: Lori Kohler
Dee's 85th birthday party -- Merle and Dee Tofte in front. From the left back row, siblings Michelle Taylor, Lori Kohler, Dale Tofte, Patrick Nusom, Jerry Tofte, and Matt Taylor (Michelle's middle child).Courtesy of Lori Kohler

VANCOUVER, Wash. — Merle and Delores Tofte, 86 and 85 respectively, were married 52 years, and in that time had five children, six grandchildren, five great-grandchildren, owned a printing company, and played in a band together. And on Monday, March 16, they died within hours of each other, victims of COVID-19.

Merle and Delores, who went by “Dee,” were the first two people to die of the virus in Clark County.

“June 17, 2020, would have been their 53rd wedding anniversary,” said daughter Lori Kohler. Instead, she said, on March 13 they became the second and third people in Clark County to test positive for COVID-19.

Three days later, at Peace Health Southwest Washington Hospital in Vancouver, just hours apart, they died, on separate floors, without their family around them because of hospital restrictions related to the coronavirus outbreak.

The couple met in the 1960s. Both had been previously married and each had children. They joined forces and were married in 1967. In 1968, they bought a Portland printing business, Herren Printing Company.

Merle had always been a musician, but after they were married, Dee decided she wanted to play too. So she learned the drums and the keyboard and they formed the band “Dee and Mee,” and played at Eagles lodges, parties and even on cruise ships.

Dee was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease and her health declined. Ultimately, she had to move to an assisted living facility. But according to the couple’s obituary, Merle visited her every night and they continued to make music, singing together.

“Kissing, hugging, holding hands and cuddling were four of their favorite things to do,” read the couple’s joint obituary. “They were inseparable and their love for one another was an inspiration for those whom witnessed it.”

Now, their family must wait to celebrate their lives and love.

“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.”

On Feb. 28, the family gathered to celebrate Dee’s birthday, Kohler said. There was a balloon bouquet, chocolate cake and presents. It would be the last time the family was together.

“The day was perfect,” Kohler said.

“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.”

Merle also seemed better than usual, Kohler said, using a cane instead of his usual walker.

On Saturday, March 7, Dee was very ill -- she was too weak to stand and was having trouble speaking, Kohler said. She was taken by ambulance to Peace Health. The following Wednesday, Merle was taken to the same hospital with symptoms of COVID-19 -- body aches, severe cough and a fever.

Taylor followed her father to the hospital to be with him. On Friday, March 13, both Merle and Dee’s COVID-19 tests came back positive. Taylor was quarantined.

Over that weekend, the couple’s health deteriorated quickly. On Monday, Dee and Merle’s children were told their parents would die within hours. They weren’t together -- Merle was on the fifth floor in intensive care on a ventilator, and Dee was on the third floor.

The hospital helped the family FaceTime to say goodbye. Both Merle and Dee had a nurse and chaplain by their side.

“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.”

Now, the family is left with a mystery -- how did they get the disease?

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

All they can do is implore people to take the disease seriously.

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

For Dee’s birthday, Merle bought his wife a watch, and the kids bought their parents matching pajamas.

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

-- Lizzy Acker

503-221-8052, lacker@oregonian.com@lizzzyacker