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Lynn Wright's grief over her husband's COVID-19 death is tinged with anger, because she started to believe the worst was over days before she lost him.

Michael Wright struggled to breathe and moved to intensive care at Regions Hospital on Nov. 17, but the Army veteran worked hard to rotate his body per doctor's orders to boost his lung function and moved back out to a regular bed on Nov. 20.

"I talked to the nurses multiple times a day, and they'd say he is doing so good," his wife said. "Then all of a sudden, just, bam."

Wright, 54, returned to the ICU on Nov. 29, and this time was placed on a ventilator. His lungs grew rigid and cracked and leaked oxygen. Wright — a well-liked civil engineering technician for the City of Inver Grove Heights, nicknamed "Grandpa Hulk Smash" by a grandson due to his strong frame — died on Dec. 8.

Wright is one of more than 5,000 Minnesotans who have died of COVID-19 — a milestone the state passed Thursday, only 17 days after reaching 4,000. It's a loss measured in numbers and cruelty, because many patients with the infectious disease died in isolation from loved ones, and in second acts of COVID-19 after their symptoms first improved.

"It's called the COVID roller coaster," said Dr. Firas Elmufdi, a Regions pulmonologist who treated Wright. "In other diseases, when a patient starts improving, you feel a sense of happiness that this patient is going to make it. Not with COVID. Not until they are many weeks away from their illness."

The official total of 5,050 deaths reported Thursday by the Minnesota Department of Health comes amid otherwise positive news of declines in cases and increases in health care workers who have been vaccinated.

"For so many families, a day that should be spent celebrating with family will instead be spent grieving those they've lost," Gov. Tim Walz said.

The deaths make up 1.2% of the 404,403 lab-confirmed cases in Minnesota — but a smaller percentage of the total infections when considering the number of people who suffered no symptoms and never sought testing. Public health officials have estimated that one-fifth of the state — more than 1 million Minnesotans — have been infected by the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

Less than 4% of the people who died from COVID-19 in Minnesota were 60 or younger. While 65% of the deaths involved residents of long-term care who are at greater risk due to their ages and underlying health conditions, that rate was above 80% in the spring.

Wright had a history of bronchitis and hypertension that could have exacerbated his infection. His work put him in the public, and he volunteered on Election Day, but he wore masks and avoided close contacts despite his skepticism over the public policy decisions in response to the pandemic. The Wrights both suffered COVID-19 at the same time and don't know how or where they were infected.

COVID-19 patient Michael Wright lay in his bed in the prone position to increase oxygenation while in the ICU at Regions Hospital in St. Paul.
COVID-19 patient Michael Wright lay in his bed in the prone position to increase oxygenation while in the ICU at Regions Hospital in St. Paul.

Leila Navidi, Star Tribune

Michael met Lynn Wright 11 years ago at a bar in Barnum, Minn., and charmed her into a motorcycle ride down the northern Minnesota back roads that lasted until 5 a.m. Both struggled with alcohol addiction, but achieved sobriety six months after they met — and poured their lives into their families and jobs and faith and cross-country Harley rides.

In September, they rode to the Wyoming state line and back — skipping the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally because of the COVID-19 risks.

"We kind of like doing vacations by ourselves," Lynn Wright said, "that way we could do what we wanted, when we wanted."

Parting was abrupt when she took her husband on Nov. 10 to the ER, where he was whisked out of the waiting room after a test found his blood oxygen was critically low. The couple used the video messaging app Marco Polo while he was in Regions, and Lynn sent humorous videos to her husband to keep his spirits up. Even when he struggled to breathe, he replied with an emoji to let her know he had seen her.

Lynn Wright got a close-up of her husband on Nov. 22, when he was featured in a photo and Star Tribune story about life in Minnesota's COVID-19 ICUs. He had been the only patient in the Regions ICU on that day capable of consenting. The picture showed him on his belly, propping his head up with his right arm, bearing tattoos on his shoulders.

"He was so strong," his wife said. "He hated laying on his belly but he was told in the hospital that it would help him. So that is what he did."

Michael Wright never sought tattoos until the couple met but was later inked with a Marvel superhero on one arm as well as a Harley Davidson logo and the text of the serenity prayer.

Lynn Wright was called to Regions during her husband's return to the ICU because cardiac irregularities suggested the worst. She gowned up, entered his room, and his numbers improved.

"If this is your idea of a hot date, I'll take it, just to be able to spend time with you," she told Michael, who was sedated and on a ventilator. "Will you please behave now?"

The Minnesota Department of Health has tracked outcomes and reported in May that 15% of the first 1,104 hospitalized patients had died. A December update of 7,403 patients showed that rate had dropped to 10%.

The state reported another 79 deaths Thursday but only 1,917 new infections, along with a positivity rate of diagnostic testing that dropped from 15.5% on Nov. 10 to 7.9%. The number of Minnesota hospital beds filled with COVID-19 patients dropped from 1,848 on Nov. 30 to 1,048 on Wednesday.

Treatment of COVID-19 has improved, though new medication options have been limited. Drug therapies include the antiviral remdesivir, the steroid dexamethasone, and the infusion of plasma from people who have recovered from COVID-19. But doctors have discovered that timing is key — that steroids too early can be harmful and that remdesivir too late can be pointless.

Mostly, successes have come through good nursing and critical care, including the rotating of patients into the facedown prone position to support lung function.

Michael Wright received the steroid and remdesivir and was enrolled in a trial of an experimental drug known as CM4620 — though it's unknown whether he received the drug or a placebo.

"Michael from day one had been following every direction we had asked of him," said Elmufdi, the pulmonologist.

Lynn Wright in her grief wonders whether her husband received too much treatment or not enough or whether there was nothing left to prevent COVID-19 from causing his death.

Her husband's gripping photo spread worldwide, and she has received numerous interview requests. She spoke to the Star Tribune only because it was what her husband would have wanted, to use his experience to maybe save others.

"I think he wants people to realize that this virus is real," his wife said, "and it's a bitch."

Michael Wright had been optimistic in social media exchanges with his wife but less guarded in a video he sent to a friend group of fellow bikers recovering from addiction.

"He broke down crying and he said, 'I'm not letting this [expletive] take me out.' He never said that to me," said Lynn Wright, who later watched the message.

If the measure of a person's worth is the lives they touched, Lynn Wright said her husband was remarkable for the happiness he brought to co-workers, friends, children and grandchildren — and their marriage.

"He was all of our grandkids' favorite," she said. "He was just like a big grandkid laying on the floor and playing games, or going bicycling with them."

Lynn Wright was holding her husband's hand in his final moments. Michael shed a tear, and it reminded Lynn of how her father died of colon cancer 27 years ago in her presence. She looked up at the doctor.

"Is he gone?" she said.

The doctor nodded.