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Franca Panettone, 46, Hernando County’s first coronavirus death

She got sick after a trip to Chicago. Now her mother and sister have the virus, too.
Franca Panettone, 46, of Hernando County, became the first confirmed coronavirus-related death in that county.
Franca Panettone, 46, of Hernando County, became the first confirmed coronavirus-related death in that county. [ Courtesy Maria Cain ]
Published Apr. 8, 2020

Franca Panettone loved drawing and painting and the colors purple and blue.

She liked going to church, watching Gilligan’s Island and drinking coffee from a large mug decorated with the letter "F" for her name. She liked the Nickelodeon show Henry Danger; her favorite character was Captain Man.

She dreamed of having her own little purple house and her own furniture with which to decorate it.

These are some of the things Maria Cain will remember about her sister, who died Monday after contracting the novel coronavirus, becoming the first reported death in Hernando County.

Until her hospitalization last month, Panettone had not spent any real time away from her family. The 46-year-old had Down syndrome and lived in Spring Hill with her mother, Cain said.

Franca Panettone on her birthday in November. Panettone died in April after contracting the novel coronavirus.
Franca Panettone on her birthday in November. Panettone died in April after contracting the novel coronavirus. [ Courtesy Maria Cain ]

Panettone loved being with her family and was usually full of life.

For her birthday in November, Panettone had requested — and received — not one but two cakes. She wore gift-wrapping ribbons in her hair as she opened presents.

But in the days after returning from a trip to Chicago in mid March, Panettone was tired and pale. She’d developed a loud cough and ran a fever at night, her sister said.

On March 28, Cain took her to Oak Hill Hospital.

“They admitted her into the hospital and escorted me out the door. They would not allow me to stay with her,” said Cain, who is Panettone’s oldest sister.

Panettone was treated for pneumonia, and later tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

Cain said doctors began treating her sister this month with hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malarial drug that has had some promising results in early studies among patients with the coronavirus but whose effect on coronavirus is not yet known. The drug has been touted by President Donald Trump and others for its potential use in the fight against the virus.

Related: What is chloroquine and why do people think it treats coronavirus?

Family members called Panettone’s hospital room often in the days after she was admitted. Panettone frequently didn’t have the energy to talk, but nurses would put the phone to her ear so she could hear the voices of her loved ones.

Her family didn’t get to see her in person before she died.

Instead, a nurse with an iPhone and wearing protective gear came out to where Cain and Panettone’s mother sat in a car in the hospital’s parking lot. They got their last glimpses of Panettone via a video chat on the iPhone’s screen.

“She looked beautiful. She looked like an angel, she really did,” Cain said. “We told her we loved her. We told her that heaven was beautiful and that she will be forever happy there. I think she heard us.”

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Less than an hour later, she got the call that her sister had died.

Only minutes before, Cain, 56, had a different call. A health official told her that she and her mother, who is 83, had also contracted the coronavirus.

Now, as they mourn for Panettone, they are isolated at home and monitoring their own symptoms. Cain is staying with her mother, away from her husband and son.

She must now decide how long to hold off on her sister’s funeral in hopes that she and her mother will be able to attend.

Cain said she has been trying unsuccessfully to get a doctor to prescribe her and her mother hydroxychloroquine. She doesn’t understand why more people can’t get access to that drug.

She thinks back to the day last month when she brought her sister to the hospital — the last moments that she saw her in person.

Cain was there as a nurse inserted an IV in Panettone’s arm. The nurse asked Panettone to sing something to distract her from the process.

Panettone closed her eyes and covered them with part of her shirt.

She softly sang one word as the IV was inserted.


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