Family suspects community transmission in Sask's 4th COVID-19 related death

Noble Gullacher, or Butch to those who knew him, was a 69-year-old man who fully embraced the role of grandfather and father. He died on April 10 and is Saskatchewan’s fourth death of the pandemic.

69-year-old Butch Gullacher died due to COVID-19 related complications on Friday

A Roughriders fan through-and-through Butch Gullacher, seen here with one of his granddaughters, Athena, and his wife Kathleen, at a rider game in 2019. Kathleen says her husband of almost 45 years was a man who loved his family dearly and had a passion for BMWs, owning several of the vehicles throughout his life. She said the family suspects he caught the case of COVID-19 that killed him here in Saskatchewan. (Supplied/Kathleen Gullacher )

The family of the fourth person to die in Saskatchewan as a result of COVID-19 complications believe the case was contracted in the community.

Noble Gullacher, or Butch to those who knew him, was a 69-year-old man who fully embraced the role of a grandfather and father. He died on April 10 and is Saskatchewan's fourth death of the pandemic.

His wife, Kathleen, said while Butch was on the transplant list for a kidney, he did his best to make sure his underlying health conditions never got in the way of him being there for his family. 

She said the two were regulars at their grandchildren's sporting events and would go and watch every game of basketball their adult son coached. When others in the crowd would ask them which child they were watching on the floor, they'd joke and say they were there for the one on the bench.

Kathleen says the death has been hard on the family. Butch is leaving behind two sons and three grandchildren, noting one of the main reasons he wanted to get healthy was so he could spend more time with his family.

"I think the grandkids were what was keeping him going, because he just loved them and all the stuff they'd do together," she said, as they would regularly play card and board games.

"He just really, really loved his grandchildren," she said of her husband of almost 45 years. 

However, where he contracted the virus is still a mystery.

"We do not know how he got it," she said. "That's always a question."

Kathleen also said that people need to understand hospitals are only letting people in to see patients under care for COVID-19 in "extraordinary circumstances." Butch was admitted to the hospital on the March 19, but she didn't see him again until April 10, when she watched through a glass window as doctors took her husband off a ventilator and he died peacefully, with a nurse holding his hand. 

Three people had died in Saskatchewan as a result of COVID-19 complications before Gullacher's death on Friday, with two patients being listed as in their 70s, including 75-year-old Alice Grove, and a third being identified as Ron Mackay, a well-known community builder in La Ronge. 

CBC contacted the Ministry of Health for comment on Gullacher's death, but a statement was provided instead.

In the statement, the ministry said it has been addressing potential cases of local transmission for some time, since the trend shifted away from travel-related cases as restrictions were introduced. 

"Part of this shift includes testing guidelines, from those who identified as travelers to those who are symptomatic irrespective of travel," the statement noted. "Local and community transmission is serious and has been happening in the province. This further reinforces the message that all residents, regardless of age or location, must take precautions at all times."

These include staying home when possible, frequent handwashing, physical distancing and staying home if you have any symptoms, even if mild. 

"This especially protects persons at higher risk and the elderly," the ministry noted. 

Kathleen said while her husband, who went to hospital on March 19, never developed a fever, his taste was affected by the virus, adding doctors originally thought he had pneumonia. However, they later confirmed he had COVID-19 and two days later, he was sent to the ICU.

"He got it from somebody out there, because we don't travel," she said. "They were really hoping we had just got back from somewhere."

An undated transmission electron micrograph of SARS-CoV-2 virus particles, also known as novel coronavirus, the virus which causes COVID-19, isolated from a patient. (NIAID Integrated Research Facility/Reuters)

She said the Saskatchewan Health Authority was in daily contact with family members and said they were also working to contact anyone who he had recently been in contact with. 

She also confirmed some family members did contract the virus, but everyone is doing well. 

A retired conductor for the Canadian Pacific Railway, Butch spent a lot of his life riding the massive freight trains that crisscross the country on roads made of Iron and wood, but said one of his other passions was cars. 

In fact, he was a founding member of the BMW Club of Saskatchewan and the couple was known to travel to race tracks across North America in pursuit of their hobby. The family owned several BMWs during his life, with the last one a BMW M6. 

"I don't know if you know much about cars, but they're pretty zippy," Kathleen said. She added jokingly: "We told the kids we're spending their inheritance on cars, so don't be looking for anything, because this was something he really, really enjoyed." 

The two were also regular trap shooters and had embraced the sport fully for their entire marriage, taking part in competitions to test their skills. She said Butch had just bought a brand-new shooting vest for the upcoming season, a vest she's now trying to retrofit for her son. 

She said people need to heed the warnings that have been sent out from health officials, and take the advice to wash their hands and keep their distance seriously. 

"Everybody has seen their breath outside in the winter," she said. "Everybody knows that there's droplets out there because we've witnessed it our whole lives, because we live here." 

Kathleen says even she is taking the physical distancing seriously, noting she's been holding off on family dinners and gatherings since the death, because she wants to ensure the virus is not spread further. 

Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe speaks at the legislature. On Saturday, Premier Moe offered his condolences to the Gullacher family on behalf of all of Saskatchewan. (Bryan Eneas/CBC)

On Saturday, Premier Scott Moe offered his condolences on behalf of the people of Saskatchewan to the Gullacher family during the province's update on COVID-19 cases in the province. Saturday marked the first time recoveries had surpassed active cases, with 147 cases listed as recovered and 138 listed as active. 

"Today's sad news certainly tempers the positive trend that we're seeing in the case numbers," he said. "Today there are four new cases and 11 new recovers, which means over half of the confirmed cases in Saskatchewan have now recovered and for the first time, there are more recoveries than active cases." 

Moe said the death is a reminder of the risk of the COVID-19 virus, but says the trend of recoveries also reminds us about the difference people can make through things like physical distancing.

As of Saturday afternoon, Saskatchewan has had 289 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and the province is expected to release new numbers on Sunday afternoon.