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The operators of a Salt Lake County assisted living center confirmed Monday that five of its residents had died from the coronavirus.

The deaths are among at least 19 COVID-19 infections at Highland Cove Retirement Community, 3750 S. Highland Drive. Nine staffers also tested positive, according to a news release from the facility’s executive director.

“One assisted living resident is in a local hospital for treatment," Jeffery Mathews, Highland Cove’s executive director, wrote in the release, "and five residents have passed at the local hospital with complications from the coronavirus. Our community mourns this loss and want to express our deepest sympathy to the families impacted.”

This represents the largest cluster of COVID-19 deaths in Utah disclosed by any public or private entity since the pandemic began. The Utah Department of Health has said 41 people have died from the coronavirus and 20 of those have been in nursing homes or long-term care centers.

In Salt Lake County, 15 of 25 deaths have come from infections at long-term care facilities, said Nicholas Rupp, a spokesman for the county’s health department.

Such facilities have had difficulty keeping out the virus and preventing it from spreading. The elderly and people with underlying health conditions are considered at high risk of complications or death due to the way COVID-19 attacks the respiratory system.

Care facilities across the United States have recorded deaths — with a few having more than a dozen fatalities. The only other Utah facility that has disclosed multiple deaths is Pine Creek Rehabilitation and Nursing in Salt Lake City, where management has said two residents have died. After positive tests there, Pine Creek became a COVID-19-only facility on April 4.

Names of those who died after being infected at Highland Cove have not been disclosed by the facility or any government agencies. The family of Ralph Faulkner said he contracted COVID-19 at Highland Cove and died April 18.

(Photo courtesy Ken Faulker) Ralph Faulkner, seen here in this undated photo, died April 18, 2020, from COVID-19, his sons say. He was 91 and lived at Highland Cove Retirement Community.

The 91-year-old Faulkner fell face first April 15 in his room at the east-side retirement community, his son Ken Faulkner said. At St. Mark’s Hospital, staffers tested the elder Faulkner for the coronavirus. This test was positive.

“He was probably sick for a while," Ken Faulkner said, "but I don’t know because he hadn’t been tested.”

The same day Faulkner died, Highland Cove found the virus had spread to 19 residents and nine workers, according to a notice posted on Highland Cove’s website dated three days later. The notice also mentioned there had been six positive tests of residents on April 11.

Mathews and other administrators from Highland Cove declined to answer questions about Faulkner.

Faulkner was born in Ohio and moved to Utah as a boy when his father went to work for Geneva Steel, his sons say. Faulkner went on to work in the steel industry, too, as a salesman for fabricators. He later owned his own fabrication shop. His wife, Patricia, was a librarian for Butler Elementary School in Cottonwood Heights. She died in 2016.

Highland Cove’s social media posts show it began taking steps to prevent COVID-19 in early March and banned visitors March 17. Faulkner’s sons tried to stay in touch with their dad by telephone.

“They were totally locked down once they found out that somebody was positive," Don Faulkner, one of the sons, said in a telephone interview from his home in Fargo, N.D. "I mean, the residents couldn’t even come out of their rooms.”

It’s unclear who at Highland Cove received the COVID-19 tests that comprised those six cases April 11. The Utah Department of Health has recommended only those with any of six symptoms get tested for the virus.

Ken Faulkner and his brother, Don, say they aren’t aware their father was tested for the virus until he arrived at St. Mark’s.

Ken Faulkner’s last conversation with his dad was on Easter — a day after Highland Cove said it received those first six positive results. The elder Faulkner cut the telephone call short. He didn’t feel well and said he needed to go vomit.

Nausea, fever and body aches can be symptoms of COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The fall on April 15 wasn’t Faulkner’s first, Ken Faulkner said. His father used a wheelchair and had been in failing health for years. COVID-19 hastened the decline.

Ken Faulkner said he wasn’t allowed into the hospital to see his dad the first two days he was there. St. Mark’s let him in April 17 and April 18. By then, his father was uncommunicative.

Don Faulkner wasn’t able to travel to Salt Lake City.

“I looked at a flight," he said, "and actually there wasn’t one out of Fargo until after he passed away.”

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) The entrance to Highland Cove Retirement Community in Millcreek, April 27, 2020.
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The sons did not offer any criticism of Highland Cove. They said they realize how hard it is to keep the virus out of nursing homes, especially with the lack of testing, and how deadly it can be to patients like their father.

“I want everyone to know this is still not something to be playing with," Ken Faulkner said of the coronavirus. "They’re trying to open things up too soon.”

A memorial has not been planned due to the pandemic. Ken Faulkner said he was allowed into his father’s room in Highland Cove to retrieve clothes for his dad to be cremated in and to gather the Southwestern artwork his parents collected. Most of his father’s possessions are still at Highland Cove.