MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — New numbers show Indigenous people in Minnesota are getting hit especially hard by COVID-19.

According to the Minnesota Department of Health, the COVID case rate is four-times higher for Indigenous residents than for White Minnesotans. The hospitalization rate is nearly six times higher.

WCCO learned the story of a beloved South St. Paul man with Ojibwe heritage, who died from the virus just days ago.

As sad as his death is, Larry Johnson’s life can only be described as joyful. His wife Joan laughs as she describes him.

“Humorous [laughs]! Always smiling, friend to everybody,” Joan said.

His bride of 17 years had to say goodbye this week without actually getting to say it in person because of COVID regulations.

“The hardest was when the doctor came out and called me and told me … ‘Larry just wanted me to come out and tell you how much he loved you.’” Joan said. “That was hard. I don’t want somebody else to tell me that.”

Joan and Larry had a lot to look forward to. The 63-year-old retire electrician was full of life and love. The proud grandparents had been extra cautious of COVID, but somehow they both got it. Larry, who was healthy but had once had heart and kidney problems, died at Bethesda Hospital in St. Paul. Joan praises the staff for their care.

“They would call me after he got onto ICU. Those doctors would let me cry on the phone to them,” Joan said. “They were so amazing.”

As heart wrenching as Larry’s loss is, it’s far from unique, according to Sharon Day, executive director of Indigenous Peoples Task Force.

“The rest of the county sneezes, we get pneumonia, and that’s because we have a lack of resources to prevention, lack of access to healthcare, and there’s also some distrust of the healthcare system,” Sharon said.

She says their elders — who hold her peoples’ history, traditions and rituals — are especially at risk. She says there is a need for federal and state funding.

“We need the resources at the same time as everybody else gets them, and we can’t leave anybody behind here,” Sharon said.

And as Larry’s love walks forward without him, she hopes it’s a journey no one else has to travel.

“It’s nothing I would want anyone else to go through, ever,” Joan said.

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Susan-Elizabeth Littlefield