“This is not an issue that should divide us,” he wrote.
Before Byrd became ill around Thanksgiving, his attitude about the novel coronavirus, which can cause the disease covid-19, included a June 2020 vote for a resolution that accused the “mainstream media” of sensationalizing pandemic coverage. In November, he was among the House Republican Caucus members who gathered for an in-person multiday retreat amid surging infections statewide.
The shift from minimizing the risks of the coronavirus to urgently warning about them is not unique to Byrd, who did not respond to The Washington Post’s request for comment Sunday. A growing group of Americans, including some Republicans, are now rapidly reassessing their doubts and dismissals as new infections fueled by the easier-to-spread delta variant of the virus point toward a summer virus surge.
Leaders such as Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey (R) and Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) have traveled their states and written opinion articles encouraging people to get vaccinated. In Tennessee, state Rep. Bryan Terry (R), who is a physician, urged vaccinations after becoming infected after he was immunized.
“I’m convinced the vaccine protected my health and possibly saved me from an extensive hospitalization, or death,” Terry said last week. “All Tennesseans, especially those with risk, need to talk to their doctor about getting vaccinated.”
Rising infection rates have simultaneously reanimated efforts to limit or ban health restrictions and mask mandates, including in Tennessee, where GOP lawmakers have pushed back against vaccine outreach efforts aimed at young people.
In Wayne County, Tenn., which encompasses Byrd’s district of rural Waynesboro, less than a third of adults are fully vaccinated, according to data tracked by The Post. Wayne County’s 31 percent fully vaccinated rate is below Tennessee’s rate of 39 percent and the United States’ overall rate of 49.6 percent.
In his statement Friday, Byrd said he was sharing his experience in hopes that it “helps others to act against an enemy that knows no skin color, economic status or political affiliation.”
He chronicled the terrifying “lightning speed” with which covid-19 overtook his lungs: a diagnosis a day before Thanksgiving. “Every breath was pure agony,” Byrd wrote of the period before his Dec. 5 hospitalization.
“Everything that can go wrong with Covid did,” he wrote. “Despite the excellent care I received, I got sicker. The virus invaded my lungs and organs and it wasn’t looking good for me. My wife and family prayed for a miracle while facing the very real prospect of planning my funeral.”
As he was placed under anesthesia before being intubated, Byrd said, he realized he might not wake up. When he came off a ventilator nearly two months later, he said, he faced a “brutal and lonely” recovery during which he was unable to walk or use his arms.
He repeatedly expressed gratitude for his family, which he said was traumatized by the experience, and for the health-care providers who looked after him.
At least 10 state lawmakers in the United States have died of covid-19 since the pandemic began last year, according to Ballotpedia.
Byrd’s statement came the same day he was belatedly sworn in to the 112th General Assembly after being unable to take his oath in January while hospitalized. He was reelected in November after backtracking on a pledge not to seek reelection following allegations by three women who said Byrd sexually assaulted them as teenagers when he was a high school basketball coach.