St. Louis County administrator confronts COVID-19
While struggling with the coronavirus himself in a Duluth intensive care unit, Kevin Gray learned his brother died of the virus the day before Thanksgiving.
It’s not lost on Kevin Gray that there are people who haven’t been as fortunate as he’s proven to be — the COVID-19 patients, including a beloved family member, who never leave the hospital.
He’s "very conscious" of those with worse, even tragic outcomes, and the ones who are still struggling with the coronavirus.
And as he begins to wade back into work as St. Louis County administrator, it's not lost on him that one of his agenda items will be to engage in the rollout of a vaccine for a disease which has taken him for a considerable loop.
Going on six weeks spent so far dealing with COVID-19 has left him checking boxes he wasn’t yet ready to encounter.
“I tried never to think down that path,” Gray said of his own mortality. “But I did do some mental planning on the fly thinking of what I might want to say to my children, their mother and my brothers.”
But Gray tested positive for COVID-19 in the days after he’d begun working from home.
Within days of that, he hospitalized himself Nov. 15.
“A week into it, things were getting to be more of a challenge,” Gray said. “I went to St. Luke’s emergency room and three-and-a-half weeks later, I was still in the hospital.”
Gray last attended a County Board meeting on Nov. 3, Election Day.
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He calls his position as the top administrator in St. Louis County, “a big job, but the best job in the public sector.” Still, Gray has had to stow his duties and his considerable sense of drive. Instead, he's had to "be selfish" in order to dedicate himself to a full recovery.
He has relied on deputy administrator Brian Fritsinger and what has proven to be capable staff and leadership within the county. Without Gray, they've marshaled a continued COVID-19 response, delivered millions in federal coronavirus relief funding, confirmed an election, and completed the busy year-end 2021 budgeting and taxation season.
“You recognize suddenly and abruptly you don’t always have total command of the pieces,” Gray said. “Other people are making things go.”
St. Louis County offices, even while mostly virtual, have felt Gray's absence.
"Kevin was never far from our thoughts," Fritsinger said. "It was one of those situations where county business took a back seat to our concerns about his health."
While Gray was battling to breathe in an ICU, he learned his brother died peacefully with COVID-19 in St. Cloud on the day before Thanksgiving. Barton Gray had underlying conditions and lived in a long-term care facility when he contracted the virus.
“He was a tremendously good soul,” Gray said, calling his brother's death an “extra sadness” felt by everyone in his family.
Gray had been fortunate, he said, to have visited his brother recently, exploring the countryside on a drive.
Gray credited all five of his brothers with buoying his spirit while in St. Luke’s hospital. Gray received no visitors while he was there, and the lack of contact was one of the enduring aspects of his hospital stay.
He gained a new respect for virtual internet contact.
At its worst, Gray’s lungs were deeply impacted by the virus.
“I did have a number of days in the ICU,” Gray said of intensive care. “My biggest challenge, quite frankly, was just the ability to breathe and keep my oxygen levels up.”
Gray didn’t get into details about his treatment. Suffice it to say, he wasn’t discharged until Dec. 10.
Since then, he’s been at home in Hermantown, where he’s being cared for by two daughters, ages 17 and 19. He likes his neighborhood, and the one-floor layout makes it easier for him to move around as he recovers.
He’s not expecting to be fully back to work until sometime later in January if he’s lucky. He’s started with some emails and soon virtual meetings, but he’s intent on enjoying the holidays, too.
The times he’s tried to work, he’s paid the price, running himself down.
“Kevin being Kevin, he tried to stay as engaged as possible by phone and text," Fritsinger said. "It’s been a huge relief in recent weeks to hear his voice sounding stronger, and see an increase in emails from him. We know how unpredictable this virus can be, and are just so grateful that he’s been among the lucky ones to beat it.”
Gray heaped appreciation onto St. Louis County staff and leadership.
“They’ve responded with great courage and leadership during an extremely busy time," he said.
Gray doesn’t know how he contracted the virus. He suspects community transmission. He believes his reaction to stay and work from home at the first sign of a symptom helped to prevent a spread at work. No further cases were traced to his illness, Gray said.
He praised the St. Luke’s medical response.
“The respect I have for people in health care was already high and it’s at a higher level exponentially after experiencing the firsthand care and expertise and all the working parts that make up a medical response,” he said. “St. Luke’s was fantastic, their compassion and teamwork.”
He’s looking forward to a holiday season with his daughters, feeling blessed to have them and everyone in the community who has dropped off a meal of soup or some other dish.
“I appreciate the life professionally and personally that I’ve had,” Gray said. “That kind of really does come into your thinking as you face a bit of a medical challenge like this."
Regarding the vaccine, Gray was effusive that he would take it when his turn came available to him. He was intent on helping to author an efficient and equitable rollout, ensuring people with more unfavorable health outcomes in the past were paid particular attention to during rollout efforts.
"We have potentially multiple vaccines we can start administering soon," he said. "I'm very proud of our public health department and their effort to help coordinate it. We're excited to see supply coming to the Northland."
If stock become available, Gray said nursing students could be employed to "help ensure this vaccine is distributed and administered as soon as possible."