Gone too soon: Minnesotans lost to COVID in 2021

Two people stand holding a large photo of a man.
Kianna Ramos-Baker and her son Jaden Baker stand with a photo of Stacey James Danner at a memorial service for him at De LaSalle High School following his death from COVID-19.
Courtesy of Kianna Ramos-Baker

Minnesota crossed an awful threshold in mid-December — 10,000 deaths from COVID-19. The pandemic’s second year took many who’d built families and communities, and just made Minnesota better.

Here are just a few of the stories MPR News and its partners reported on during the year.

Father, husband Patrick Stroh

A hand holds a book with a photo of a man at a dining table.
Michelle Gordon-Stroh holds a photo book showing a photo of her late husband Patrick Stroh.
Evan Frost | MPR News

MPR News reporter Catharine Richert wanted to talk to someone who had lost a loved one as the world was starting to move on from COVID-19 during the summer, before the disease surged again.

Michelle Gordon-Stroh reached out to her out of the blue about losing her 51-year-old husband Patrick to COVID, Richert said, and it’s still a heartbreaking story to read.


Trailblazer Kao Ly Ilean Her

A collage of family portraits
Family portraits. Top left: Ilean (at right) with her sisters Sharon and Kristen in 1987. Top center: Ilean portrait. Top right: Ilean (second from left) holding her baby brother, James around 1981. Bottom right: In 1977, the Her family appeared in an article in their local Iowa newspaper about their first Thanksgiving in America. Bottom center: Ilean, in an immigration clearance document in 1976. Bottom left: sisters Sharon and Ilean.
Images Courtesy of Sharon Her

Kao Ly Ilean Her shattered barriers as a woman of many firsts, but two stand out: She was the first Hmong woman to pass the bar exam in Minnesota and the first to be appointed a University of Minnesota regent.

Her died May 13 due to COVID-19 complications. She was 52 years old. Known to many as Ilean, she won respect and gratitude as a lifelong leader dedicated to the Asian American and Pacific Islander community, according to MPR News partner Sahan Journal.


6-year-old girl in Marshall

In April, officials in southwestern Minnesota acknowledged the death of a first grader at Park Side Elementary School in Marshall. She was the third Minnesota child to die of COVID-19 since the pandemic began.

Kids and adults who knew the 6-year-old child who was never publicly identified were heartbroken at the news. Marshall Public Schools announced that crisis counselors would be available to students and teachers

“Your heart immediately breaks for that child, for that child’s parents, for the classmates, and for the teachers,” Park Side parent and minister Anne Veldhuisen told MPR News. “You don’t expect to be having this conversation with your 6- or 7-year-old about a friend that they’ve lost.”


North Minneapolis advocate Stacey Danner

Two people stand holding a large photo of a man.
Kianna Ramos-Baker and her son Jaden Baker stand with a photo of Stacey James Danner at a memorial service for him at De LaSalle High School following his death from COVID-19.
Courtesy of Kianna Ramos-Baker

Stacey Danner was an ardent cheerleader and advocate for his north Minneapolis neighborhood, for Black entrepreneurs and for his wide circle of friends from all walks of life.

But in the spring, he wavered on getting a vaccine because he wasn't sure they were safe. He fell gravely ill with COVID-19. He was 46.

Danner loved swimming and karaoke, traveling and comic books. In his music collection, R&B artist Al Jarreau mingled with English pop band Tears for Fears. 

His friends told his story to MPR News in the hope of swaying other people of color to get vaccinated.


Minnesota tribal elders

Native Americans had the highest COVID-19 mortality rate of any population in the United States. For tribes working to revitalize language and culture, the loss of elders to COVID-19 left an especially painful void.

The threat of COVID-19 to elders served as a turning point for Baabiitaw Boyd, commissioner of administration for the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe. To protect elders and keep them isolated, she and two other younger members of the Mille Lacs Band took on new roles during the pandemic, leading funerals and other spiritual ceremonies. 

"It's terrifying to be responsible for somebody's spiritual well-being, when you're not really even sure if you're well enough, or practiced enough," said Boyd. She expected to some day to take on that role, but not while her teachers were still alive.

"I don't even have the right word for the sadness, and the overwhelming feelings that came with that," she told MPR News.

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