ELKHART — Oscar H. Sheets died in November, at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, a scourge that has now claimed its 500th victim in Elkhart County, according to the Indiana State Department of Health.
The 88-year-old retired pastor lived with his son and daughter-in-law in Middlebury.
“He just thought he had a cold or something,” his son, Gary Sheets, said as he recalled what happened. “We treated him only for one day and then we called an ambulance.”
On average, more than six county residents have died from the disease every week for 80 weeks, according to the Indiana State Department of Health, making Elkhart County the fifth county in Indiana to reach 500 COVID-19 deaths. The counties that had already crossed that line are home to Indianapolis, Fort Wayne, Gary and South Bend.
Like several thousand other county residents, members of the Sheets family became infected during the worst part of the pandemic.
At the hospital, Sheets felt like he was doing better, his son said. He didn’t know it was because he was being given an increasing amount of oxygen and that soon, the hospital staff wouldn’t be able to turn up the dial any more. That’s when the doctor called Gary, asking if he wanted to be the one to tell his father that he would not survive the infection.
“That was the hardest phone call I ever made,” Gary said. “My dad thought he was doing better and really had no idea that his time here was almost gone. Once I explained it, he said, ‘Give me a minute and I’ll FaceTime you back.’”
Sheets took a little longer than that. A man of faith who spent almost 20 years as the pastor at Elkhart Northside Church of the Nazarene, he needed to pray.
“About 20 minutes later, he FaceTimed me back and he said, ‘OK, I prayed about this. I’m at peace with it and it’s my time to go,’” Gary said. “His exact words were, ‘This is what I preached about my entire life. Now I get to see it.’”
A few years earlier, Sheets had decided that, if it would ever be relevant, he would not want a ventilator, as he didn’t want to be a “vegetable,” his son said.
Dying away from family
Because of the risk of infection, Goshen Hospital only allowed two people – Gary and his sister – to visit their father again before his death, and they were not allowed to be with him for his last breaths. Sheets had wanted to die at home, and in case he would have the chance, his family had put up Christmas lights and bought presents early because of how much he loved the holiday season. But he didn’t get to go home.
After Sheets had come to terms with his fate, he realized there was a small silver lining. So on the day before his death, he called his son.
“He wanted to tell me that since blood sugar problems didn’t matter anymore, he was going to have pizza and ice cream as his last meal. He knew and he could feel he was getting very weak and that it was time for him to go home with Jesus. And then that was the last I heard from him,” Gary said.
Sheets died at 5:03 a.m. on Nov. 17 without his family. That was hard to accept for Gary, who couldn’t understand why at least one of them could not be allowed to sit with his father.
“That was the worst part. Because I have held the hand of my grandparents and my mom, and I did not want him to die without me there,” he said.
A full life
Almost a year later, the loss is still apparent when Gary speaks of his father’s death. But he finds some consolation in knowing that his father lived a full life.
“He was 88, but he was really in good shape for his age,” Gary said. “He drove everywhere, he did everything he wanted. Life was treating him pretty good until COVID came to Elkhart County in November so bad.”
And Sheets made a decision for himself that, even with the coronavirus being in his community, he was not going to change how he lived.
“He said at that time, ‘I’m 87 years old, and if I die of COVID, at least I didn’t give up an entire year of life hiding from it.’ And that was my dad’s attitude, and that’s really been my family’s attitude also,” Gary said. “He wanted to live while he had time to live.”
The day Sheets died was one of the worst days of the pandemic in Elkhart County. The seven-day average for infections reached its all-time peak that day, at 326, and Sheets was one of eight county residents who died from COVID-19. More than 100 others died from it that month.
The more recent surge in infections is second only to the one in November and peaked with a seven-day average of 126 new infections per day on Sept. 16. Since then, the average has dropped to 81.
Sad day for county
Elkhart County Health Officer Dr. Bethany Wait said reaching 500 deaths is a sad milestone to reach for the county. But she noted some cause for optimism, as residents have an option now that they didn’t during that late 2020 surge.
“The one good thing that we have to battle COVID is the vaccination, and you look at the first part of COVID, when we didn’t have the vaccine, we saw a lot more deaths in our county, so that is just proof of how well this vaccination is working,” she said.
After the pandemic hit in 2020, about 30 county residents died most months until the surge in October, November and December. The numbers have been much lower since vaccines became available, with several months in 2021 having fewer than 10 deaths. However, there has been a small rise in the number of deaths as infections increased over the summer and fall, with 14 county residents dying from COVID-19 in the past 30 days.
There has also been a surge in COVID-19 hospitalizations, with Elkhart General Hospital currently having 39 COVID-19 inpatients and Goshen Hospital, according to Wait, also being in the 30s. That limits the hospitals’ ability to perform as many non-coronavirus-related procedures as they otherwise could.
Yet, Elkhart County, like the state as a whole, is at its lowest point for new vaccinations since vaccines became available in December 2020; on Monday, for example, 53 county residents got their first dose. To date, 37.9 percent of the county is fully vaccinated. The county has had a total of 35,279 confirmed infections.
Statewide, 1.348 percent of fully vaccinated people have had breakthrough cases, 0.027 percent have been hospitalized, and 0.013 percent – 420 people – have died from COVID-19. The total number of Hoosiers who have died from COVID-19 is 15,586.
Wait encouraged people to get immunized if they haven’t already, as it demonstrably decreases the risk of hospitalization and death.
“It’s safe and it’s effective,” she said.