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Florida Family On Their Daughter's Fight For Her Life Against COVID-19

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Florida is reeling from the coronavirus. About 5,000 people have died in that state. More than 300,000 people have confirmed infections. In a moment, we'll hear from the mayor of Pensacola about how his city is weathering the outbreak. But first, some good news about one Floridian.

ROBERT O'CONNELL: She made it home yesterday, so that's a good thing. Yeah, it was pretty neat. It's finally not lonely no more (laughter).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Robert O'Connell of Milton, Fla., speaking about his daughter, 16-year-old Halene O'Connell. Halene contracted COVID in June. She spent 18 days in intensive care, 12 of them on a ventilator. She came home last week. It's been a terrifying and confusing time for the O'Connell family. Robert himself tested positive but felt very few symptoms. His wife spent the entire time at her daughter's bedside in the hospital room.

R O'CONNELL: You don't know what to think. You hear all these stories on TV, and you don't know how much is true and what is not true and this and that. Your emotions are all over the place. You're like, oh, my God; I might never see my kid again. It's just - it's - you know, you can't even explain.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Her lungs.

R O'CONNELL: Yeah, my wife said her lungs weren't working at all.

CARMEN BARLIANTO: It attacked everything. We've been on a roller coaster ride of the unknown.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Halene's aunt Carmen Barlianto, who has been helping the O'Connell family from her home in Washington state. I asked her to tell us a little bit more about her niece.

BARLIANTO: She's sweet, caring 16-year-old. She loves hanging out with her family and her cat. She - you know, she's humble, and she's not a big social butterfly, you know? Like, she's a homebody and loves her family. That's our Halene bug.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Robert, did you - did your perception of this pandemic change when you and your daughter got sick?

R O'CONNELL: To a certain extent, yes. And then to a certain extent, no. I never knew anyone. None of my friends knew anyone that had it. And what you keep seeing on TV every day - more people dying, more people dying, more people dying. And you're like, whoa, how can there be so many people around here and you don't even know one person that has it?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. I understand, Robert, that you and your wife Carrie lean Republican. And Florida's Governor Ron DeSantis is a staunch supporter of the president. He's also Republican. How do you think the president and your governor have handled this outbreak? - because we are seeing, you know, a huge surge in coronavirus cases and specifically among young people now.

R O'CONNELL: Well, it's the thing about this - a president or a governor really doesn't - can't stop this disease. No one can except people in general to follow some kind of commonsense guidelines, which young people are going to start catching it because you're going to have everyone - you know, you done kept everyone cooped up in their house. Then now you say, OK, well, we're going to start opening stuff. So what are people going to do? They're going to go party. They're going to go be around people. They're going to do everything they weren't supposed to do.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So do you think there should be a more serious lockdown? I mean, do - what do you think should happen now?

R O'CONNELL: No, I don't really think lockdowns would do anything. I think it would make it worse. I don't think everyone should just be thinking that this is hocus-pocus and it can't get you because it can. It's like, for the millions of years that the flu been on, we've never closed the world down when the flu was here. So what's the difference?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What do you want people to take away from Halene's story?

R O'CONNELL: That you can get it. Just keep faith in God, and wash your hands. And then wear a mask when you're in public. And that's basically all you can do.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I guess my last question about Halene is just, you know, she's home with you now. She's - you know, you've got her close. I guess you must be feeling pretty good that, you know, you did have a miracle and she came back to you. Can you tell me what is the first thing that she kind of wanted to do at home other than sleep? Has she been asking for something special?

R O'CONNELL: Well, she wants to eat cookies and stuff, but...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What's her favorite cookie?

R O'CONNELL: Anything. What's your favorite cookie, Halene?

HALENE O'CONNELL: Peanut butter chocolate chip.

R O'CONNELL: Peanut butter chocolate chip cookie, she says.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Oh, she's there. She's listening.

BARLIANTO: One day.

R O'CONNELL: Yeah, she's laying on the couch next to me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Robert O'Connell in Milton, Fla., with his 16-year-old daughter Halene, who just got home after nearly three weeks in the ICU. We also heard from Halene's aunt Carmen Barlianto. We wish Halene and her family all the best. Halene O'Connell was treated in a Pensacola hospital in Escambia County. There have been more than 5,000 residents with the coronavirus there, and hospitalizations have been doubling since early July. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.