FRANKFORT, Ky. — Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear’s campaign for COVID-19 vaccinations gained a new voice with a highly personal testimonial — a one-time vaccine skeptic recounting his debilitating fight against the virus.
Ethan Koehler (Kay’-ler) spoke in stark terms of his journey from downplaying the pandemic to being laid low by excruciating pain, struggles to breathe and then “relearning” to walk without losing his breath as the coronavirus ravaged his health.
“I was very, very big on anti-COVID, anti-vaccine,” Koehler said. “I made Facebook posts, public posts, talked to people, made a big deal about it. Made a point to not wear a mask. Made a point to say that COVID wasn’t important. And I am eating crow on it, because I experienced it.”
Koehler’s video message was shown at Beshear’s media briefing Thursday afternoon. After months of imploring Kentuckians to take the COVID-19 shots, the governor has turned increasingly to others to help make the case. His briefings routinely feature doctors and nurses warning of the growing risks for the unvaccinated as the fast-spreading delta variant causes the state’s worst surge of the pandemic to date.
The 28-year-old Koehler’s ordeal highlighted another alarming trend — growing infection rates among younger Kentuckians, who are less likely to be vaccinated. Just 41% of Kentuckians ages 18-29 have received at least a first dose of vaccine, compared to 84% among people 65 and older.
Overall, more than 2.4 million Kentuckians have received at least one vaccine dose, accounting for 55% of the state’s population. Most of the state’s COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths since March 1 of this year have been among partially vaccinated or unvaccinated Kentuckians.
On Friday, Beshear reported 3,869 new COVID-19 cases statewide and six more virus-related deaths. The rate of Kentucky residents testing positive for the virus increased again, to 12.8%.
Koehler, who is from Benton in far western Kentucky, contracted the virus in July and was hospitalized for 17 days. The pain grew so intense that “every time I took a breath, it felt like somebody was sitting on the right side of my chest, and with a knife,” he said in a phone interview Friday. He credits his doctors with saving his life.
In the video, Koehler said he always thought he was able to “handle some stuff,” but when he was fighting for breath, “that was when I realized, this is really bad right now. I can’t even tough it out.”
It also led him to reevaluate the social media pronouncements he had made about the pandemic.
“Having COVID, I wouldn’t wish it on anybody,” he said in the video. “It’s because of COVID I have to fight now every day to get a little bit better. I’m relearning how to walk without catching my breath.
“If I knew that a vaccination would have taken 75% or even half of my struggles the last month out ... I would have gotten it in a heartbeat and I would have never looked back,” he added.
Beshear praised Koehler for coming forward to share his dramatic story. But the governor also said it reflected “the dangers of misinformation” hindering the fight against the virus.
“One of the most difficult things that we face in our fight against this virus is folks either putting out information that is blatantly false or sometimes intentionally lying,” Beshear said.
He warned Thursday that the state’s hospitals are filling up as the delta variant accelerates the outbreak, and that every “staffable bed” could be in use within a week and a half.
Chastened by his experience, Koehler said he’s backed off from heated social media exchanges about the pandemic.
“I still believe it’s your right to choose what you want to do,” he said by phone. “But I guess the blunt side of it would be, if you don’t want to get the vaccine, then don’t complain when you’re stuck in the hospital parking lot and can’t breathe because it’s full.”