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Santa Rosa police detective who died of coronavirus complications was twice denied test for virus

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How To Help

A fund to help Mary Lou Armer's family has been set up through the Peace Officers Research Association of California. To donate, go to porac.org.

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For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

Track cases in Sonoma County, across California, the United States and around the world here.

As she spent two weeks in mid-March fighting off a fever, aching body and shortness of breath, Santa Rosa Police Detective Marylou Armer twice asked doctors to be tested for COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus that would kill her by the end of the month.

But Armer’s requests were denied by Kaiser Permanente’s Vallejo Medical Center. A doctor told the 43-year-old that her age and lack of underlying medical conditions meant she was not considered vulnerable to the illness that has killed more than 100,000 people worldwide, said her older sister, Mari Lau of Menifee in Riverside County.

By the time the American Canyon resident was finally cleared to be tested on March 23, after initially being denied for the third time, “it was too late already,” Lau, 47, said.

When Armer’s husband brought her to the emergency room that day, she was quickly sedated and intubated in an effort to boost the dangerously low levels of oxygen in her bloodstream, her sister said. A little while later, her test for COVID-19 came back positive and she was placed in a medically induced coma in the hopes that her condition would improve. She never woke up and died March 31.

Armer’s husband has asked for privacy for him and his daughter since his wife’s death, but the family has agreed to let Lau share details about Armer’s life and illness.

“It is very frustrating,” Lau said of her sister’s inability to be tested at a time when medical providers across the United States were imploring the federal government to give them more testing kits to better track the spread of the virus. “A person knows their body and knows when something is wrong.”

In a statement, Kaiser on Saturday confirmed that Armer was not immediately tested.

Dr. David Witt, the HMO’s national infectious disease expert, emphasized she was in regular contact with her physician and that doctors had adhered to “public health authority testing guidelines, which have been based on a very limited availability of tests.

“We offer heartfelt sympathies to Detective Armer’s family and loved ones at this profoundly difficult time,” Witt said in the statement.

When Armer first got sick, she told her sister that she thought she was coming down with a cold or the flu. She had a fever, body aches, shortness of breath and some chills. A few days later, her fever and body aches subsided a little, but she still had some trouble breathing.

“She said she’d never felt this kind of sickness in her body before,” Lau said.

A sworn officer in the Santa Rosa Police Department, Armer was the first California peace officer to die from the disease as well as the first Napa County resident. She is one of nine Santa Rosa police officers and staff to test positive for the coronavirus as of Friday.

The last time Lau heard from her sister was when Armer’s husband dropped her off at the hospital emergency room to get tested for the virus. A little while later, Armer told her sister the doctors were going to intubate her for 24 hours because she was having difficulty breathing and her oxygen level was so low.

How To Help

A fund to help Mary Lou Armer's family has been set up through the Peace Officers Research Association of California. To donate, go to porac.org.

_____

For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

Track cases in Sonoma County, across California, the United States and around the world here.

“It was horrible,” Lau said of being far away from her sister in her final days. “I didn’t know how bad she was until that day.”

Hours after Armer was put under, her test results came back positive for the coronavirus.

Armer’s condition worsened overnight, and doctors told her family that they had to put her in a medically induced coma for at least five days. Doctors had hoped, Lau said, that the coma would allow Armer’s body to recuperate — to restart her lungs while she was on life support.

Each day, Armer’s condition would progress a little bit before it worsened again, her sister said. No one was allowed to see her because she was in isolation.

Lau, Armer’s husband, stepdaughter, mother and brother sent voice recordings of themselves for hospital staff to play for Armer while she was in a coma.

“When they played that, they said that her heartbeat kind of went up a beat and her oxygen went up a little, which was good news,” Lau said. “But that evening (before she died), her condition just got really bad.”

The next day, Armer’s husband called Lau and told her the doctors said Armer may not make it through the next few hours. Soon after, she was gone.

“The toughest thing about this situation is not being able to be there for her when she was at the hospital and being able to see her and talk to her,” Lau said.

Witt, the infectious disease expert for Kaiser, noted that as the guidelines for testing have changed during the course of the pandemic, so has Kaiser’s policy.

“Those guidelines for testing have evolved over the past several weeks, whereas a month ago, testing was limited to those with symptoms and who had primary contact with a COVID-positive person,” Witt said, “... our policy at this time is to prioritize testing of first responders and healthcare workers. These are the heroes who serve, protect and care for our communities.”

Santa Rosa Police Chief Ray Navarro has said that Armer died in the line of duty and on April 3, her colleagues memorialized her with a mileslong procession of law enforcement vehicles, their lights flashing in silent tribute. But officials don’t know for certain how Armer contracted the coronavirus. Armer’s husband and stepdaughter were quarantined for two weeks because of their close proximity to Armer, but they didn’t experience any symptoms, Lau said.

Those close to Armer described her as a kind and caring person. She is survived by her husband and stepdaughter; Lau; her mother, Susan Hernandez of Carlsbad; and her brother, Ronnie Hernandez of Carlsbad. She is also survived by a brother-in-law, two nieces and two nephews.

Lau said her sister loved the outdoors — she enjoyed kayaking and camping, and grew her own fruits and vegetables.

Armer was born Oct. 26, 1976, in San Diego. Her family lived in National City for a while before moving to San Diego.

She joined the Santa Rosa Police Department in 1999 as a civilian field evidence technician, and became an officer in 2008. Most recently, she served as an investigator in the sexual assault and domestic violence unit.

Her interest in law enforcement started in high school, when she joined the National City Police Department’s Explorer Program — aiding police officers in a nonlaw enforcement capacity.

“She fell in love with it, and she knew that she could really make an impact on someone’s life,” Lau said.

When Armer saw an opening in the Santa Rosa Police Department, she applied to be a field evidence technician and decided to move north on her own. She lived in Sonoma County for several years before moving to Napa County.

“She’s just a very outgoing person,” her sister said. “She’s the type where if she put her mind to something, she’d get it done.”

“She really loved helping her community,” Lau continued. “She just loved her job. She wanted to help anyone and everyone she could.”

At the beginning of this month, Lau, her mother and brother flew up to Santa Rosa for the Sonoma County police and public safety procession that traveled more than 50 miles across the North Bay to honor their fallen colleague.

“Because of the situation, we weren’t able to see her physically,” Lau said. “Being there … gave my family and I a little piece of mind — knowing that we were able to have some private time with her coffin and just put our hands over it, knowing that she was there.”

The last time Lau saw her sister was on Armer’s birthday in October. Lau’s son was getting married, and Armer flew down to Riverside County for the celebration.

Lau said she looks back at that memory fondly, but also with sadness.

“In the back of my mind, I just wish that I just sat down and cherished that time with her,” Lau said. “I just wish that I took that time to spend with her more than I did that day. But the memory that we had that day, the pictures that we had, I’ll always remember.”

Staff Writer Will Schmitt contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Chantelle Lee at 707-521-5337 or chantelle.lee@pressdemocrat. On Twitter @ChantelleHLee.

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