The moment he felt a slight itch in his throat, state Rep. Fue Lee worried he might have caught COVID-19.
Days earlier, the Minneapolis Democrat had gathered with family to mourn his brother-in law, who had died of an undiagnosed heart condition. Lee and many relatives tried to take the proper precautions, wearing masks indoors and spreading out in a living room and garage to maintain space as they helped the grieving family process the death. But that Sunday, a small number of elders had dismissed the guidance, gathering around a table to talk and eat without face coverings.
Hours after the scratchy throat appeared, a fever set in. With an August legislative session a day away, Lee sought a test. He brought along his elderly parents, who had both developed coughs. All three tested positive. They returned home to isolate, but it was too late. More than 20 members of his family, including a 9-month-old niece, would test positive in the days and weeks that followed.
Lee recently shared his family’s ordeal for the first time, as legislators debated whether to strip Gov. Tim Walz of the emergency powers he has used to respond to the pandemic, including mandating face masks in public. In a floor speech delivered remotely, Lee said his experience demonstrates the need for a comprehensive state-led effort to contain the virus.
“I find it disturbing and belittling from my colleagues that we are … fearmongering,” he said of GOP arguments for ending the emergency. “It is an insult to many of the families like myself who have been impacted by COVID.”
While a growing number of members of Congress have tested positive for coronavirus, Lee, an assistant majority leader elected in 2016, is one of the first of Minnesota’s 201 legislators to publicly disclose his diagnosis. Many of those who have shared close encounters, including family sickened or killed by the virus, are Twin Cities lawmakers from communities of color.
Rep. Rena Moran, DFL-St. Paul, disclosed that she and her family tested positive earlier this year. U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar’s father died of the coronavirus in June. State Rep. Mohamud Noor, a Somali-American Democrat who represents the hard-hit Cedar-Riverside area, lost his granduncle in May. During his floor speech, Lee also shared that Rep. Kaohly Her, DFL-St. Paul, lost two uncles with ties to the essential workforce. One was a grocery store worker and the other was the father of a bus driver.
Neither Minnesota chamber will release data on positive cases or exposure involving legislators, so it’s unknown how many legislative colleagues have contracted the virus or dealt with sick family members. But for Lee and other members of color, the apparent gap in impact reflects the racial disparities seen at the state and federal level.
“I want members of this body to understand the real impact this is having on our families,” he said.
For Lee, the experience highlighted some of the challenges in reaching and treating communities of color, including the Hmong population. Traditional Hmong funerals can last several days and draw hundreds of community members, creating conditions ripe for spread. More than a dozen family members visited his sister’s home for the August wake, a precursor to a bigger funeral that has since been delayed.
Despite outreach efforts, including guidance for funerals issued by the state, Lee believes language and cultural barriers contributed to lack of understanding about the risks of transmission among some family members.
“My dad, my mom, some of the elders, they didn’t know what the virus was, so when they were sitting together, they thought this was fine,” he said in an interview. “[They thought] ‘We’re not sharing plates, we’re just sitting together and having a meal.’ ”
Even after several relatives from the wake fell ill, others resisted getting tested. And because of his own positive diagnosis, Lee was unable to act as his mother’s translator in person when he brought her to the emergency room last month. Staff shortages meant she had to press a buzzer and wait for an available interpreter.
“If we cannot be there in person to help translate, there may be miscommunication,” he said.
The family’s saga also shows the ease with which the coronavirus can spread through relatively small gatherings. As with many coronavirus cases, it’s nearly impossible to pinpoint “patient zero” for this cluster of cases. Even with the efforts to social distance, Lee and other close family members spent hours together indoors that weekend, as other more distant relatives cycled through to pay condolences and help fold the paper boats that are used in traditional Hmong funerals.
No one appeared symptomatic at the gathering, but Lee heard after the fact that an elder related to an extended family member might have been exposed before attending. Lee’s father sat next to that man for part of the day, creating a potential avenue for transmission. And while everyone he knows who got a test after the wake tested positive, ongoing contact between family members in the days that followed makes it difficult to trace the virus’ path. Some people who attended did not get tested or disclose any results, further complicating contact tracing efforts.
At least two family members, Lee’s mom and his infant niece, did not attend the wake but fell victim to secondary transmission. He assumes he or his father gave the virus to his mother, who could have exposed the young girl while babysitting. But the girl’s parents, who were at the gathering, also fell ill.
Ryan Demmer, an epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health, wasn’t surprised to hear how quickly the virus moved through the family. Indoor gatherings such as wakes or weddings, even when only family is in attendance, create the “perfect situation for spread,” he said.
“Events like this are classic in that one person somehow shows up infected [and] they don’t know it,” he said. “The long duration just exacerbates it.”
Lee, who is 29, escaped the worst of the virus’ effects. After a few weeks of symptoms, he is on the mend. His partner, who also tested positive, recovered too, as did her child. And efforts to curb the spread within the family after the first positive diagnoses did seem to help. By wearing masks at home, his sister and her husband were able to protect their 4-year-old, who has a pre-existing condition that makes him more susceptible to a serious case.
Some relatives did experience severe illnesses, leaving the family shaken. His parents were both hospitalized, with his 76-year-old father returning twice for medical care. A sister-in-law was readmitted after her symptoms worsened earlier this month, but she has since been released home. Another relative, who had brain cancer, died soon after the virus spread through the family. They still aren’t sure if the coronavirus contributed to her death. The uncertainty, including about the health of his young niece, and the inability to visit ailing family members in person at the hospital caused extreme stress.
Lee said he still worries about a late-night wake-up prompted by another family member taking a turn for the worse.
“It’s a tough situation to fall asleep at 11 or 12 in the morning and hope I don’t get a phone call from my mom,” he said. “I don’t want to say it’s PTSD but it’s to that point, where you’re waking up shaking, expecting that it’s the worst.”