Ramsey County Manager Ryan O’Connor has tested positive for COVID-19, he said Tuesday, likely catching the virus from his 5-year-old son, who contracted it at day care.
O’Connor said that despite his understanding of the health care and COVID testing systems, scheduling tests for himself and his family proved to be a challenge.
He shared his personal experience Tuesday at the Ramsey County Board meeting, saying he hoped “that talking about our experience helps Ramsey County learn and improve as it works to serve residents.”
O’Connor said that his family had to go to three different locations to get his wife, his two young sons and himself tested.
“The mantra, particularly that’s been said at the federal level, that if you need a test you can easily get one, remains removed from the living reality … that I experienced,” O’Connor told the board.
O’Connor, 36, who bikes 100 miles a week, was amazed by how ill he felt. He said he had a pounding headache for eight days, chills and a constant ache deep in his lungs.
“I was surprised it can knock you down as hard as it can,” he said.
O’Connor has completed his two-week quarantine but is working remotely this week as his wife, Annie, continues to deal with COVID symptoms.
He said he didn’t pull any strings with Ramsey County Public Health but rather navigated the system through his family’s county employee health plan.
It was eye-opening, he said: the half-dozen calls he had to make, the limited testing sites for kids, the confusing websites, the shortage of available appointments and the disconnect between the state’s testing recommendations and what is actually offered.
“Mine is a story of privilege and access, yet it was still a challenge to navigate COVID for my family,” O’Connor said.
He said he worries about how such obstacles affect residents, especially those with less access and resources than he has.
“We live in a community with the most refugees and immigrants in Minnesota,” O’Connor said. “If you didn’t speak English as a first language, that would be a huge hurdle.”
O’Connor said his family, who live in St. Paul, had been careful with hand-washing, social distancing and avoiding large gatherings. But both spouses work outside the home and drop off their 3- and 5-year-old sons at day care.
In late August, the family received notice that a child in the 5-year-old’s class had been exposed to COVID. Under state health recommendations, that meant O’Connor’s son should be tested. It wasn’t easy, he said.
“We kept getting told, ‘We are not testing asymptomatic children,’ ” he said.
O’Connor’s son was eventually tested and found to be positive. Test results for the rest of the family were negative, but O’Connor said he was experiencing symptoms.
The family retested, and this time his results were positive. His wife and their 3-year-old son tested negative, but she has since developed symptoms.
O’Connor said he wanted to use his experience to give better information to county employees and the public.
“There is still a lot of uncertainty about what to do and how to access it,” he said.
Ramsey County hosted eight free, no-questions-asked testing events in August, and it has testing events planned this month at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church on St. Paul’s West Side and the Mexican Consulate on the East Side.
“We’ve been very close to the heart of this as the largest local public health department in Minnesota and a large employer from the beginning,” O’Connor said. “So many factors have affected our day-to-day approach — from learning and sharing the current best understanding about the virus to the availability of PPE and tests — and that reflects how complicated and challenging this pandemic has been to address.”