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Eldersville man recovering after six-week hospitalization with COVID-19

Royce Kotouch Jr. thought he was doing everything right throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Eldersville man, who is an EMT and firefighter with Jefferson Township Volunteer Fire Department, consistently wore a face mask and followed other protocols to avoid getting the virus.

But on Jan. 3, the 50-year-old was hospitalized after he tested positive for COVID-19, and he spent more than six weeks fighting for his life.

Kotouch is continuing to recover at home, following his Feb. 15 release from Acuity Specialty Hospital of Ohio Valley.

“I’ve slowed down a good bit because of this. My endurance is getting better, but I’m still weak and I get out of wind,” said Kotouch. “I feel blessed.”

Kotouch’s ordeal began three days after Christmas, when he visited an urgent care facility, where a COVID-19 test came back negative and he was diagnosed with sinusitis.

He took a second COVID test before he was scheduled to return to work at Alex Paris Contracting, where he is the superintendent of the equipment shop. Again, it was negative.

But less than a week after he got the sinus infection diagnosis, Kotouch woke up feeling weak and tired.

“I went into the kitchen, and the room started getting real hazy and I felt dizzy. I felt like I was in a tunnel, and I told my wife something was wrong,” recalled Kotouch.

Kotouch’s wife, Renea, an operating room nurse, rushed him to the hospital.

This time, Kotouch tested positive.

He was taken to the hospital’s COVID floor and began receiving high levels of oxygen.

But Kotouch experienced complications. He developed double pneumonia, which badly damaged his lungs.

At one point, Kotouch’s blood oxygen level – which should be 95% or higher – dropped dangerously low, to 60%. And he developed blood clots, a life-threatening complication.

“Things got really scary then,” said Kotouch.

Heather Kemper, Regional Director of Provider Relations at Acuity and a longtime friend of Kotouch, said he was critically ill during his stay, and narrowly avoided being placed on a ventilator.

But Kotouch said he had a will to live, and he maintained a positive attitude and listened to everything his medical team told him.

“I have a lot to live for: my wife, my kids, my friends, all the things I do for the community, my job, which I love. I have all of this stuff going for me. I don’t want to die,” said Kotouch, a father of three grown sons and grandfather of a 1-year-old granddaughter, Lillian. “A couple of nights I got scared and cried on the phone with my mom because I didn’t think I was going home.”

Kotouch is well-known throughout the Burgettstown community. The U.S. Army veteran, who served in Desert Storm and Desert Shield, serves as quartermaster for the Slovan VFW Barto Post 6553, is caretaker for the Burgettstown High School football field, coaches middle school football and volunteers with the district’s wrestling program.

He and Renea raise sheep, chickens and pigs on their property, and he enjoys hunting and fishing.

Kotouch said he recalls very little about his hospital stay, but he received as many as 150 texts and phone messages each day.

Among those who called daily were his parents, Royce Sr. and Geraldine, and his boss, Alex Paris.

He was allowed to have one visitor, so Renea visited him every day.

Kotouch lost 30 pounds while he was hospitalized.

COVID-19 is unpredictable in the range of symptoms it can cause, and Kotouch is still dealing with them. He has neurological damage that occasionally causes his hands to shake; he lost his sense of smell and can only taste certain foods; and he is working to regain his stamina.

“There isn’t any ‘can’t.’ I am determined to get my strength back,” said Kotouch. “My wife jokes that I have Spongebob arms now.”

Kotouch is asking people to take the COVID-19 pandemic seriously.

While Kotouch was hospitalized, three family friends died from COVID-19, and one of his roommates – who sat in a chair and called buddies to tell them he’d be home in four or five days – died about four days after making those calls.

“I said to my wife the other night that I think the good Lord picked me to set an example for all the people around me who said this is a joke or don’t take it seriously. I feel like I’m here to prove to people this is a little more serious than you think.”

Kotouch plans to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

He credits the support and love from family, friends and the community, along with the medical care and encouragement provided by the hospital and Acuity, with helping him recover.

Said Acuity’s Kemper, “Royce is a very positive person, very giving and caring. He’s given so much time and service to the community and he’s loved by so many people, and I think that truly helped him get through this experience, especially because COVID can be very isolating.”

When Kotouch walked through the door of his home, where his family greeted him, he “felt like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz.”

“There’s no place like home,” said Kotouch, who has resumed watching Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune nightly with his father. “There are a lot of things we take for granted. Home life is one of them.”

Not anymore.

editor's pick
Inside Pennsylvania’s race to expand who’s eligible for the coronavirus vaccine
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HARRISBURG – For Doris Daigle of Westmoreland County, booking a coronavirus vaccine appointment was a multi-state effort shared by her nine children and 27 grandchildren, spread out across the country from Los Angeles to New York City, Houston to New Jersey.

They helped Daigle, 86, of Greensburg, scour vaccine appointment sites – from major health-care systems like UPMC and Excela, to chain and small independent pharmacies – as she herself surveyed friends on social media or people she bumped into while running errands.

“Where does someone in her 80s go to get a COVID shot?” she asked.

Daigle lucked into a vaccine appointment March 18, when a local Giant Eagle called to offer her a last-minute appointment slot that opened up. But she wondered, “What about those dear hearts who don’t have anybody to help them?”

That’s the question on the minds of many Pennsylvanians as the state lurches forward in an effort to move on from Phase 1A of the vaccination plan, which prioritizes health-care workers, people older than 64, and anyone older than 16 with certain high-risk health conditions.

Gov. Tom Wolf has embraced President Joe Biden’s May 1 goal to open vaccine eligibility to all Pennsylvania adults. In order to advance beyond Phase 1A, his administration has directed the state’s vaccine providers to clear their waitlists and schedule appointments for anyone who currently qualifies by March 31 (though those appointments can extend far beyond that date).

With that deadline looming, Wolf is confident the state is on track to meet it.

“We’re not perfect,” Wolf said last week during a press briefing at a vaccine site in Scranton. “We’re still not at the place where every senior – everybody who needs a vaccine, which is all of us – has gotten that. Until we get to that point, I think we need to keep working as hard as we are to figure out the best way to do this.”

But some residents, local officials, state lawmakers, vaccine providers, and volunteers are skeptical – and wary of promising too much.

In Fayette County, county employees and volunteers work to schedule appointments for residents who sign up through a registry managed by the local COVID-19 task force. As of Wednesday, they were working to schedule about 13,000 appointments through April, Fayette County Commissioner Scott Dunn said.

“We have to work with the state,” Dunn said. “My problem with the state Department of Health has been the mandates that they throw down. When you have a rag-tag team of volunteers who you’re telling, ‘You have to make 13,000 calls by the end of the month,’ it’s just not realistic.”

Mixed success

As of Friday, 3.18 million people had received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine in Pennsylvania, state data shows. The health department estimates that there are about 4 million eligible people in Phase 1A, and officials expect about 80% to seek the vaccine.

“If about 80% of eligible individuals choose to be vaccinated, that means more than 3.2 million Pennsylvanians must have either received a vaccine or have been scheduled by the end of the month, for an appointment in the future,” according to a health department statement.

While high-level statistics show the state is making progress, county-level data shows that some Pennsylvanians are apparently faring better based on where they live.

Across the 66 counties in the health department’s vaccine jurisdiction, an average of 23% of residents in each had received at least one shot as of March 24, according to state data.

Some rural counties, like Fulton and Potter, had some of the lowest vaccination rates in the state, with 12% and 13% of their populations, respectively, having received at least one shot.

That’s not the case in other rural counties – like Cameron, Elk, and Sullivan – which as of last week had some of the highest vaccination rates in the state. In Cameron and Elk, about 34% of residents had received at least one shot. In Sullivan, where local and state officials ran a vaccine clinic in late January, 37% of residents had received at least one shot.

In Beaver County, only 15% of residents had received at least one shot as of March 24. That’s in stark contrast to neighboring Butler County, where 30% of residents had received a shot, and Allegheny County, where that number was 31%.

In many parts of the state, the demand for appointments is down by about 50%, said Rep. Tim O’Neal (R., Washington), a member of the state’s COVID-19 Vaccine Joint Task Force.

Demand is higher in the southeast, he said. But even there, only about 70% of appointments for the next week are filled, he said.

“We’re getting to the point where the people who are sitting on the waitlist have found an opportunity somewhere else,” O’Neal said.

Reaching older Pennsylvanians

Of the people currently eligible for a vaccine, perhaps no group has struggled to secure doses as much as older Pennsylvanians, who are among the most vulnerable to serious complications and death from COVID-19. Most of the state’s more than 24,000 coronavirus deaths were among people older than 64.

About 70% of Pennsylvania residents in that age group had received at least one shot as of Friday, ranking Pennsylvania behind neighboring states like Delaware and Maryland, but ahead of New York, New Jersey, and West Virginia, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

That total includes a federal program that vaccinated people in nursing and some personal care homes, but does not include numbers from Philadelphia – which is running its own vaccine program – or federal facilities.

Facing criticism that it was too hard for some older people without internet access or computer skills to sign up for vaccine appointments, the Wolf administration in February touted resources available through Area Agencies on Aging – 52 outposts of the state Department of Aging that provide resources throughout Pennsylvania.

These agencies do not provide vaccines, but they can facilitate the sign-up process by reaching out to seniors who are enrolled in other health or prescription programs, and by coordinating waitlists to distribute to vaccine providers.

Many have been working for weeks to clear their backlogs.

In Cambria County, where about 28% of the population has received at least one shot, 47 names were on the local AAA’s waitlist as of March 16, said Veil Griffith, the agency’s administrator.

She and other agency heads in the western part of the state had noticed that demand is starting to slow.

“People are starting to receive the vaccine, and we’re seeing people come back to the senior centers,” said Leslie Grenfell, executive director of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Area Agency on Aging, which represents Fayette, Greene and Washington counties.

Her agency had no waitlist on March 16, Grenfell said.

But on the same day across the state in Dauphin County, the local AAA had more than 200 names on its waitlist. And as of March 17, the Luzerne-Wyoming County AAA had thousands and counting, said Mary Roselle, the agency’s executive director.

Vaccine appointments in the northeast region are scarce, and often filled up within an hour of being announced, she said. It doesn’t seem like much progress is being made toward getting people signed up in her area.

“As long as we’re receiving these phone calls, we know that they’re not,” Roselle said.

As Spotlight PA questioned the state about these long waitlists, the health department on Thursday ordered vaccine providers to work with AAAs and Medicaid programs to schedule remaining people eligible in Phase 1A for vaccines for as far into the future as necessary.

Shifting focus

The Department of Health has helped to support some community vaccination clinics, but for the most part has left vaccine distribution in the hands of health systems, pharmacies, and local health agencies.

In another effort to speed up vaccinations, the state health department on March 18 released a plan to temporarily scale back the number of vaccine providers and send a higher volume of doses to sites that are able to administer them quickly.

But some believe taking doses away from small, independent pharmacies could hurt the communities the move was intended to serve.

“They were still getting the job done with their older population,” Sen. Elder Vogel (R., Beaver) said. “And people who didn’t have access to good transportation, they need a vaccine just as much as anybody else.”

Adzema Pharmacy in McCandless, which serves Pittsburgh’s northern suburbs, was among those removed from the provider list.

“I’ve delivered it to people, I’ve given it to people in their parking lots,” owner Jay Adzema said. “We’re giving it to people who can’t get out.”

The pharmacy has administered 400 first doses and 200 second doses so far, and plans to administer the remaining second round doses before temporarily being removed.

In Perry County, where about 22% of residents had received at least one shot as of March 24, many residents don’t want to drive out of the county or to a mass vaccination site to get a vaccine, said Rep. Perry Stambaugh (R., Perry).

“A lot of them are very happy going to their family doctor for their medical needs,” Stambaugh said. “If their family doctor can’t get a shot, they would much rather go to the church parking lot to get vaccines.”

Finding people to staff vaccine clinics has also been a challenge, he said.

Spartan Pharmacy, an independent pharmacy that operates three locations in Pittsburgh’s southern suburbs, was not removed from the list of vaccine providers last week.

When it has the supply, Spartan is able to vaccinate more than 1,800 people during its day-long clinics, owner Adam Rice said.

The state is asking providers to schedule remaining 1A appointments based on previous allocations of vaccine doses as far into the future as necessary. But the supply is inconsistent, and Rice only finds out how many vaccines he’ll be receiving for the following week days before they’re due to arrive. That makes it hard to plan clinics and coordinate sign-ups, he said.

“A waitlist insinuates there’s a place in line,” Rice said. “Folks sign up to be notified by email when we have appointments available. That list is 42,000 people.”

Even larger operations are struggling to figure out how to handle their waitlists.

The Lancaster County community vaccination site is currently vaccinating about 2,000 people per day. As of March 20, there were about 97,000 people on its waitlist, Commissioner Josh Parsons said, adding that the number is likely to grow.

“We could say we’re scheduling all 100,000 people, but unless you know you have vaccines, you can’t give them the appointments,” Parsons said. “Or you do, but you have to change it.”

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Jurors shown video at ex-officer's trial in Floyd's death

MINNEAPOLIS – The video of George Floyd gasping for breath was essentially Exhibit A as the former Minneapolis police officer who pressed his knee on the Black man’s neck went on trial Monday on charges of murder and manslaughter.

Prosecutor Jerry Blackwell showed the jurors the footage at the earliest opportunity, during opening statements, after telling them that the number to remember was 9 minutes, 29 seconds – the amount of time officer Derek Chauvin had Floyd pinned to the pavement last May.

The white officer “didn’t let up” even after a handcuffed Floyd said 27 times that he couldn’t breathe and went limp, Blackwell said in the case that triggered worldwide protests, scattered violence and national soul-searching over racial justice.

“He put his knees upon his neck and his back, grinding and crushing him, until the very breath – no, ladies and gentlemen – until the very life was squeezed out of him,” the prosecutor said.

Chauvin attorney Eric Nelson countered by arguing: “Derek Chauvin did exactly what he had been trained to do over his 19-year career.”

Floyd was fighting efforts to put him in a squad car as the crowd of onlookers around Chauvin and his fellow officers grew and became increasingly hostile, Nelson said.

The defense attorney also disputed that Chauvin was to blame for Floyd’s death.

Floyd, 46, had none of the telltale signs of asphyxiation and he had fentanyl and methamphetamine in his system, Nelson said. He said Floyd’s drug use, combined with his heart disease, high blood pressure and the adrenaline flowing through his body, caused a heart rhythm disturbance that killed him.

“There is no political or social cause in this courtroom,” Nelson said. “But the evidence is far greater than 9 minutes and 29 seconds.”

Blackwell, however, rejected the argument that Floyd’s drug use or any underlying health conditions were to blame, saying it was the officer’s knee that killed him.

Chauvin, 45, is charged with unintentional second-degree murder, third-degree murder and manslaughter. The most serious charge, the second-degree murder count, carries up to 40 years in prison. This is the first trial ever televised in Minnesota.

Bystander Donald Williams, who said he was trained in mixed martial arts, including chokeholds, testified that Chauvin appeared to increase the pressure on Floyd’s neck several times with a shimmying motion. He said he yelled to the officer that he was cutting off Floyd’s blood supply.

Williams recalled that Floyd’s voice grew thicker as his breathing became more labored, and he eventually stopped moving. He said he saw Floyd’s eyes roll back in his head, likening the sight to fish he had caught earlier that day.

Williams said he saw Floyd “slowly fade away ... like a fish in a bag.”

Earlier, Minneapolis police dispatcher Jena Scurry testified that she saw part of Floyd’s arrest unfolding via a city surveillance camera and was so disturbed that she called a duty sergeant. Scurry said she grew concerned because the officers hadn’t moved after several minutes.

“You can call me a snitch if you want to,” Scurry said in her call to the sergeant, which was played in court. She said she wouldn’t normally call the sergeant about the use of force because it was beyond the scope of her duties, but “my instincts were telling me that something is wrong.”

The video played during opening statements was posted to Facebook by a bystander who witnessed Floyd being arrested after he was accused of trying to pass a counterfeit $20 bill at a convenience store. The footage caused revulsion across the U.S. and beyond and prompted calls for the country to confront racism and police brutality.

Jurors watched intently as the video played on multiple screens, with one drawing a sharp breath as Floyd said he couldn’t breathe. Chauvin sat calmly during opening statements and took notes, looking up at the video periodically.

“My stomach hurts. My neck hurts. Everything hurts,” Floyd says in the video, and: “I can’t breathe, officer.” Onlookers repeatedly shout at the officer to get off Floyd, saying he is not moving, breathing or resisting. One woman, identifying herself as a city Fire Department employee, shouts at Chauvin to check Floyd’s pulse.

The prosecutor said the case was “not about split-second decision-making” by a police officer but excessive force against someone who was handcuffed and not resisting.

Blackwell said the Fire Department employee wanted to help but was warned off by Chauvin, who pointed Mace at her.

“She wanted to check on his pulse, check on Mr. Floyd’s well-being,” the prosecutor said. “She did her best to intervene. ... She couldn’t help.”

The timeline differs from the initial account submitted last May by prosecutors, who said Chauvin held his knee on Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes, 46 seconds. The time 8:46 soon became a rallying cry in the case. But it was revised during the investigation.

Fourteen jurors or alternates are hearing the case – eight of them white, six of them Black or multiracial, according to the court. Only 12 will deliberate; the judge has not said which two will be alternates.

Before the trial began, Floyd family attorney Ben Crump blasted the idea that the trial would be a tough test for jurors.

“We know that if George Floyd was a white American citizen, and he suffered this painful, tortuous death with a police officer’s knee on his neck, nobody, nobody, would be saying this is a hard case,” he said.

After the day’s proceedings, a few hundred protesters gathered outside the courthouse. Speakers called for justice for Floyd and others whose lives were lost in encounters with police. One speaker, Jaylani Hussein, screamed: “Police officers are not above the law!”

The downtown Minneapolis courthouse has been fortified with concrete barriers, fences and barbed and razor wire. City and state leaders are determined to prevent a repeat of the riots that followed Floyd’s death, with National Guard troops already mobilized.

Chauvin’s trial is being livestreamed over the objections of the prosecution. Judge Peter Cahill ordered that cameras be allowed largely because of the pandemic and the required social distancing, which left almost no room for spectators in the courtroom.

Three other former officers go on trial in August because Cahill ruled there wasn’t enough space to try all four at once.


Find AP’s full coverage of the death of George Floyd at: https://apnews.com/hub/death-of-george-floyd