A year ago, Hawaii lost its first resident to COVID. Her loved ones lost ‘Aunty Verna’

Family remembers Hawaii’s first COVID-19 death and mistake by health officials

HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - At the end of the month, Hawaii will mark a somber milestone: The one-year anniversary of Hawaii’s first COVID-19 death.

Pearl City resident Verna Onomura, 82, likely caught the virus in Las Vegas.

And for the first time, her family is sharing their grief publicly.

They said Onomura loved traveling to Sin City with her sisters several times each year to visit her daughter and family, each time staying at the California Hotel.

“We used to call them the golden girls because they were always together and make those trips together,” said daughter Kathy Tokunaga.

Tokunaga says on March 17, 2020 her mother and aunties flew back to Honolulu, the same day Las Vegas shut down as coronavirus blanketed the nation.

“I called my aunty and I said, ‘oh you guys left in the nick of time,’” said Tokunaga.

Two days after arriving home, Onomura wasn’t feeling well and later suffered a fall.

Weak and dehydrated, she was rushed to Pali Momi Medical Center and diagnosed with COVID-19 and congestive heart failure.

“I think she waited a little too long to get some help,” said Tokunaga.

Tokunaga saw her mother once in-person in the hospital. But even with full protective gear, fear of the unknown disease was overwhelming.

“You have that feeling of, ‘oh my God I’m going to catch it. We shouldn’t touch her,’” she said.

“You have to make a choice. We told her we love her and we left the room and we told her possibly we’d be back. We left and I told my brother we cannot go back,” she added.

Onomura lost her battle with COVID on March 30.

“We were in shock,” said Tokunaga.

Tokunaga says the pain of her mother’s death was made worse as the state Health Department initially misidentified her mother at a news conference as a man.

“At first I was in disbelief. Are you guys telling the truth?” said Tokunaga.

Because of COVID restrictions, the family hasn’t held a funeral yet for Onomura.

To help the family find closure, Tokunaga said they will release a video to remember the woman affectionately known by many as “Aunty Verna.”

“She’s fun, laughing, cooking for everybody,” said Tokunaga. “She’s just a really relaxed lady. Your typical Korean drama lady,” she added. with a laugh.

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