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Rep. David Byrd, R-Waynesboro, attends a special session of the House of Representatives Friday, Aug. 23, 2019, in Nashville. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

NASHVILLE — A state Republican representative, who for nearly eight months fought a life-threatening battle with COVID-19 that included 55 days on a hospital ventilator and required a liver transplant, is pleading with Tennesseans to take seriously both the disease and the vaccine providing protection in most instances from serious illness.

Describing his near-death experience, Rep. David Byrd, R-Waynesboro, said in a statement that while he was never anti-vaccine, he understands concerns of those who are "hesitant" to get vaccinated, then went on to describe his own ordeal.

"To them, I would say COVID is real and it is very dangerous," the 63-year-old retired high school coach said. "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 also said he hopes "by sharing my experience it helps others to act against an enemy that knows no skin color, economic status or political affiliation."

His statement, first reported by The Tennessean, comes as COVID-19 cases fueled by the delta variant are surging in the U.S., with Tennessee's rates surpassing the national average.

Byrd is the second Republican lawmaker to speak out recently about the seriousness of the disease and the benefit of vaccination. Incidences of vaccine hesitancy run higher among self-described Republicans, according to polling.

Last week, House Health Committee Chairman Bryan Terry, a Republican and physician from Murfreesboro, noted he has asthma and other risk factors and recently tested positive for the virus. "While it hasn't been easy, I know it could've been so much worse; and in part I attribute that to my vaccination status," Terry said.

In his statement, Byrd described being diagnosed with COVID-19 the day before Thanksgiving in 2020. "COVID took over my lungs with lightning speed," he wrote. "I developed pneumonia. I got sicker and sicker, and more and more anxious. Every breath was pure agony."

He was hospitalized on Dec. 5 and soon put on a ventilator. Although ventilators save lives, Byrd said, "the sobering reality is that the overwhelming majority of intubated COVID-19 patients do not survive."

Describing his thoughts in the moments before undergoing anesthesia for the procedure, Byrd said he realized it might be "the last I see of this world."

It was a "terrifying prospect," said Byrd, noting that afterward "everything that can go wrong with COVID did." Just when it appeared he was improving, the lawmaker said, "suddenly I wasn't.

"My liver began to fail. I developed jaundice and was later diagnosed with COVID cholangiopathy [impact on bile ducts]. I was told I would need a liver transplant or else I would die."

His family "prepared for the worst" — his potential death, Byrd said, adding that his wife and other family members "prayed for a miracle while facing the very real prospect of planning my funeral."

Byrd received the liver transplant on June 12. He said he is regaining strength but still has a tough road ahead. The lawmaker was accused several years ago by three former students of having sexually assaulted them in the mid-1980s while he was a teacher and coach, before his election to the Legislature. Byrd never denied the accusations outright but at the time questioned the women's motivations and said he had committed no wrongdoing as a representative.

"I am the first to admit I am not deserving of God's grace in receiving this miracle," he said in his remarks about COVID-19 without elaboration.

A number of Republican legislators have shown skepticism about the pandemic, with one lawmaker threatening to bring legislation to dissolve the state health department for its outreach to minors about getting vaccinated. That resulted in Republican Gov. Bill Lee's administration firing the department's vaccine chief, Dr. Michelle "Shelley" Fiscus, a move that made national headlines.

Various GOP lawmakers have battled COVID-19, among them the late Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, who after surviving a battle with the virus was found to have pancreatic cancer.

Rep. Robin Smith, a Hixson Republican and registered nurse, said Monday in a statement to the Times Free Press that "it is undeniable that individuals have access to protecting themselves through face coverings, testing and vaccines as their choice."

Smith said, "it's also undeniable that individuals have varying responses to COVID that demonstrate some become seriously ill while others have mild symptoms or none at all. Tennesseans have the responsibility to make the decisions that will best protect themselves, maximize their ability to work, attend school and interact in our community. It's time to be making wise choices."

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.

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