Kris Ehresmann, face of Minnesota's COVID response, set to retire

A woman stands at a podium with a man behind her.
Minnesota infectious disease director Kris Ehresmann speaks to reporters in March 2020 after confirming Minnesota's first known COVID-19 case. Officials on Thursday said she is retiring after 30 years in public health.
Christine T. Ngyuen | MPR News

Updated: 4:38 p.m.

Kris Ehresmann, the state’s infectious disease director and one of the key players in Minnesota’s battle against COVID-19, will retire Feb. 2 after 30 years in public health, officials said Thursday.

Along with Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm, Ehresmann became a familiar face and voice in the pandemic the past two years, answering questions about the disease and sharing her own family’s experience coping with the illness.

Before COVID, she played a crucial role during a 2017 measles outbreak in the Twin Cities metro area, the largest such outbreak that year in the United States. She’s worked on Ebola preparedness, an investigation of fungal meningitis and the H1N1 pandemic response in 2009.

“Serving as the director of the infectious disease division has been one of the great honors of my life,” Ehresmann said in a statement. “Like so many people who have worked in a job they love, I have mixed feelings about saying goodbye. That said, it has been my privilege to work with an amazing team and I have every confidence I am handing the baton to the best in the business.”

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In answering questions during the pandemic, Ehresmann made it clear she also understood the daily challenges of trying to stay vigilant against the disease while preserving normalcy in life. That included relating a recent story of how her own family fell ill.

She told reporters her 89-year-old father had stopped by a few weeks ago and they spoke for about 15 minutes. The next day, she said, her dad said he wasn’t feeling well and shortly after tested positive. Then Ehresmann did, too, along with other members of their family.

Ehresmann said her dad and her family members are vaccinated and boosted and so have been able to manage the illness at home. She said she asked her dad why he came over if he wasn't feeling 100 percent. He told her he felt like he was just getting a cold.

“You can’t guess what you have,” Ehresmann said. “If you have any symptoms of feeling off, you really need to isolate.”

Gov. Tim Walz acknowledged that Ehresmann helped build an effective team that was early in identifying the omicron variant in Minnesota.

"It's always hard to lose a longtime civil servant,” he said. “But I have to tell you after the last two years and the position we've been in and the quality of the way we have directed and handled COVID, Kris Ehresmann has certainly earned a well-deserved retirement and we'll miss her, but her team is solid."

State officials said they will launch national search for a new infectious disease director. Emily Emerson, the current assistant director of the Infectious Disease Epidemiology, Prevention and Control Division, will take over as interim director.