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Tennessee lawmaker, once a coronavirus skeptic, now urging everyone to get vaccinated

"Covid took over my lungs with lightning speed," GOP state Rep. David Byrd said. "I developed pneumonia. I got sicker and sicker, and more and more anxious."
Image: David Byrd
Rep. David Byrd attends a special session of the House of Representatives, on Aug. 23, 2019, in Nashville, Tenn.Mark Humphrey / AP file

A Tennessee lawmaker who once downplayed the threat of the coronavirus urged his constituents to get vaccinated, saying Covid-19 "is real" and "wants to kill us."

State Rep. David Byrd, 63, insisted he's never been against vaccinations, but urged anyone who hasn't been jabbed yet to do so because inoculations "should not divide us."

"I have never been against taking the Covid-19 vaccine, but I understand the concerns of those who are hesitant," the Republican lawmaker said in a lengthy statement obtained Tuesday by NBC News.

"To them, I would say Covid is real and it is very dangerous. It is a disease that wants to kill us. Please take it seriously. Please consider getting vaccinated. This is an issue that should not divide us."

Byrd tested positive around Thanksgiving and didn't believe he'd have any problems as a healthy man in his early 60s.

He had been spotted on the House floor without a mask on Nov. 24, days after hosting a dinner for dozens of GOP members at a local restaurant, the Tennessean newspaper reported.

In summer 2020, he supported a House resolution that decried "the mainstream media for sensationalism" of the coronavirus pandemic "to advance their political agendas."

"Up until this point in my life, I’ve been pretty healthy and active," according to Byrd's statement. "Foolishly, I believed this virus only seriously affected people who are at high risk."

He described his life's roller coaster in the past eight months and the desperate moments when death seemed inevitable.

"Covid took over my lungs with lightning speed. I developed pneumonia. I got sicker and sicker, and more and more anxious. Every breath was pure agony," he wrote about life before checking into the hospital on Dec. 5.

"Like an unfortunate few, I quickly crossed the boundary of needing life supporting interventions."

He was unconscious for much of the next 55 days, as the lawmaker languished on a ventilator in intensive care.

"I have no memories of this time, but my family will certainly never forget it. They were traumatized daily by the distressing updates on my status," Byrd said. "My wife and family prayed for a miracle while facing the very real prospect of planning my funeral."

He thanked all the caregivers who helped him at Wayne Medical Center, St. Thomas Hospital, Tennessee Select, West Tennessee Healthcare, Vanderbilt University Medical Center, and Vanderbilt Stallworth Rehabilitation Hospital. Over an eight-month span, Byrd said he spent all but two weeks in a hospital or rehabilitation facility.

"This experience has brought much clarity to me and my family and the importance of having each other," he continued. "I am not looking backward, but rather focusing on today. I hope that by sharing my experience, it helps others to act against an enemy that knows no skin color, economic status or political affiliation."

Before this bout with Covid-19, Byrd was best known for sexual misconduct allegations made against him in 2018 by women who were under his care when the lawmaker was a high school basketball coach in the late 1980s.

Byrd previously said he does "not condone sexually inappropriate behavior" and questioned the motive of accusers.

"Conduct over 30 years ago is difficult, at best, to recall, but as a Christian, I have said and I will repeat that if I hurt or emotionally upset any of my students I am truly sorry and apologize," Byrd said in a 2018 statement.

Despite calls from fellow Republicans to step down, he won re-election in 2018 by a three-to-one margin and faced no opposition this past November.

He represents the 71st District in far southern Tennessee, just north of state borders with Alabama and Mississippi. The district includes Hardin, Lewis and Wayne counties and a portion of Lawrence County.

Ali Gostanian and Donna Mendell contributed.