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One year later, Renville County's first COVID-19 case remains vigilant

John O'Neill did everything right when he suspected he might be Renville County's first to test positive for COVID-19 last year. Because of it, he is credited with helping prevent community spread early in the pandemic. Today, John and wife Pat are vaccinated and doing well, but remain vigilant about masking and practicing social distance protocols.

Renville County Public Health was holding a COVID-19 vaccination clinic as Pat and John O'Neill met with reporters to discuss how the past year has gone since John became the first to test positive for COVID-19 in the county, and as one of the first rural residents in all of the state. Now vaccinated, they are starting to get out of the home more but remain vigilant about masking and social distance protocols. Tom Cherveny / West Central Tribune

OLIVIA — One year after being the first to test positive for COVID-19 in Renville County , John O’Neill remains vigilant about following the protocols to stop this virus in its tracks.

The same can be said for his wife, Pat. They have both received two COVID-19 vaccine shots and are participating in a study with the Mayo Clinic tracking the antibodies in their blood.

John’s antibody levels are off the charts following his second shot: “Your system is like four Dobermans and somebody sends a steak out,” John said one of the laboratory workers told him.

For related: CORONAVIRUS

They wear their masks and follow the protocols today for the same reason they did after John recovered from a relatively mild bout with the virus one year ago. They know it is possible to contract the virus and be asymptomatic after having been previously infected. It's possible the same is true after being vaccinated. Now as then, they don’t want to do anything to spread this virus, they said.


“Especially when we are approaching the finish line,” said John as he and Pat met last week with local news reporters. They came forward again at the invitation of Jill Bruns, Renville County Public Health director, to discuss how they’ve fared since John gained statewide notoriety as one of the first rural residents to test positive for COVID-19 .

He became Renville County's first and the state’s 115th COVID-19 case on March 13, 2020, when the Minnesota Department of Health called with the news of his positive test. John, then 68, had already recovered from the symptoms of his bout. He and Pat had returned to their Bird Island home from a vacation in California.

John began to feel ill on March 7, 2020, or a few days after their return home. He immediately self-isolated at home. He had learned from news accounts that the nation’s first cases of COVID-19 were being reported in the area of California where they had spent their time.

Bruns credits the O’Neills' decision to self-isolate as soon as they suspected John had contracted COVID-19 with preventing an early community spread of the virus in Renville County. The county did not record its second COVID-19 case until a few months after John had tested positive, she said.

Pat never did become infected. She has had her antibodies tested as part of the research they are assisting. She has had no antibodies to COVID-19 until after being vaccinated. It’s John’s antibody levels that have been the surprise. A level over 250 is considered immunity. His levels soared to 9,600 after the second vaccination.

The antibodies in his blood after his bout with the disease last year were important for us all. A laboratory that had developed one of the first antibody tests for the disease used the blood he provided to confirm the efficacy of the test.

John and Pat said there was no doubt that local people were nervous last year when word first spread that he had tested positive. John had visited a local bank before he had felt any symptoms, but never ventured out of the home once the symptoms began.

Still, there were rumors.


“There were John O’Neill sightings in Olivia and Bird Island,” said Pat, laughing. She said they received word about rumors of John having been at a Lions Club meeting, church or other locations. When they learned of the rumors, they contacted people to let them know it was not true. Once John tested positive, Pat began her own two-week quarantine.

Pat said other family members felt the effects of the worries that were out there. People did not realize that the couple had had no contact with other family members after returning home from California.

Pat said they understand why people had worries. “I think it was because they didn’t understand it,” she said.

People are not as nervous these days. They also noted that the country is a divided one. They know that there are people who dismiss COVID-19 as no more than influenza. They point to the number of deaths — 43 at latest count in Renville County — as reason to treat this virus for the pandemic it has wrought.

John said that their ability to self-isolate last year was aided by the fact that they had just retired. They were able to hold an auction of their farm in December — online but also with in-person bidding by masked and socially distanced attendees.

Otherwise, they have pretty much spent the past year at home. They even sacrificed Thanksgiving and Christmas gatherings with family.

Since being vaccinated, they are returning to normal activities while continuing to mask and practice social distancing. They have ventured to a couple of restaurants now. John continues his daily workouts, including swimming laps.

John and Pat said they’ve enjoyed one of their healthiest years ever other than John’s bout with COVID-19. They’ve made it through a winter without any illness, not so much as a sniffle, Pat said.


John is a cancer survivor and had a heart valve replacement over a decade ago, and continues to do well on all accounts.

He said he’s had a few lingering effects from the virus. His sense of smell for certain things was affected. Steel cut oats, once a breakfast staple for him, “smells like it’s half anti-freeze,” he said.

To this day, they do not know why John contracted the virus when Pat did not. They did all the usual things together while in California, staying in a motel, and going dining and shopping. The Palm Springs Airport was crowded and no one was masked when they made their way through it to return.

Their plane was filled with Minnesotans on their way home with them, all without masks. Pat counted no fewer than three who were coughing all the way back.

Their experience with COVID-19 have given them a whole new appreciation for health care workers and researchers.

"(They are) so dedicated, so wanting to figure this out. We're so amazed and impressed with all the work they are trying to do," said Pat.

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