COVID-19 fight becomes personal for St. Louis County administrator

Kevin Gray has been leading the county's COVID-19 response. Then he got the virus himself.

A health-care worker takes the temperature of a visitor
Amid coronavirus concerns, a health-care worker takes the temperature of a visitor to Duluth's Essentia Health in a skywalk bridge in April.
Alex Kormann | Star Tribune via AP file

When COVID-19 first began to sweep across Minnesota in March, Kevin Gray didn't have time to think about his own chances of contracting the virus.

Instead, the St. Louis County administrator was trying to wrap his head around the magnitude of the pandemic. It's his job to oversee the county's public health response, and figure out how to continue to deliver services to the 200,000 people spread across the huge northeastern Minnesota county — the largest county east of the Mississippi River.

St. Louis County Administrator Kevin Gray
St. Louis County Administrator Kevin Gray
Courtesy of Kevin Gray

For months, he says, St. Louis County fared well — it experienced a slow drumbeat of cases, and a lower number of deaths than in other places. But then the fall came.

"I’ll tell you, it really hit us in November and the end of October,” he recalled. “It was just a very big challenge.”

Infection rates soared. More people died. Since the beginning of October, the total number of people in the county who have died from the virus has quadrupled.

"We knew it would be coming,” he said. “But it was really November [that] was a very difficult month."

Difficult for the county — and, it would turn out, for Gray.

One morning, in early November, he woke up with a fever. Over the next several days, his temperature would spike, then subside. But then, a week after he first got sick, Gray, 65, began having trouble breathing.

He drove himself to the emergency room at St. Luke's Hospital in Duluth. “I just was feeling challenged, quite frankly, and it wasn't getting better,” he said. “[It] began the saga of a 26-day stay at St. Luke's Hospital."

Meanwhile, 200 miles away in Alexandria, Minn., Gray's brother Barton, who had dementia and lived in a long-term care facility, was also fighting COVID-19.

Just a week after Barton contracted the virus, as Kevin Gray struggled to breathe in the ICU at St. Luke's, Barton died, the day before Thanksgiving. He was 60.

"He passed away peacefully in his sleep, while I'm in the hospital, and feeling disconnected,” Gray said.

It was a surreal experience, he said, to not be able to reach out to his brother, while ”I'm fighting my own battle and thinking that we're going through this together.”

But in reality, they were isolated from each other and their families, he said.

Gray feels fortunate he had been able to visit his brother earlier this fall, before either of them came down with the virus.

He finally left the hospital on Dec. 10. Three weeks later, he's still recovering at home, slowly resuming work, and still thinking about the toll COVID-19 has taken on his family — how it could take one brother, and not the other.

"I just want people to know that you can't predict the outcome," he said.

And then he quickly puts his county administrator hat on again.

"This is why it's so important to practice the protocols, whether it's masks, distancing, or making smart choices about where you go and what you do," he said.

In the new year, Gray said, his work at the county will be focused on ensuring the COVID-19 vaccine is distributed equitably. Personally, he said, he's learned not to take anything in his life for granted: his job, his family — and especially, his health.

Looking back, looking ahead: As 2020 comes to a close, several MPR News reporters have been checking back in with people they met earlier in the pandemic — about how their lives have changed, and about what they're hopeful for in the new year.

COVID-19 in Minnesota

Data in these graphs are based on the Minnesota Department of Health's cumulative totals released at 11 a.m. daily. You can find more detailed statistics on COVID-19 at the Health Department website.

The coronavirus is transmitted through respiratory droplets, coughs and sneezes, similar to the way the flu can spread.

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