BRAINERD, Minn. — Crow Wing County Commissioner Paul Koering declined earlier this year when his doctor offered him a COVID-19 vaccine. But three weeks spent suffering with the disease — six days of which were in the intensive care unit at Cuyuna Regional Medical Center in Crosby, Minnesota — changed his mind completely.
“I think I made a mistake by not getting vaccinated,” Koering said during an emotional phone interview Nov. 10. “I guess I don’t have a good explanation of why. I don’t know that I was skeptical, I guess, about the vaccination. I still could have gotten it even with the vaccination, but it might not have been as severe. Which would have been helpful, because I’m serious. This was, this was — I don’t know. It was pretty close.”
The 56-year-old three-term commissioner drove himself to the hospital in the middle of the night Nov. 1 after 12 days of feeling progressively worse. When he arrived, doctors told him he’d narrowly avoided needing a ventilator. Instead, he was placed on a respirator with high oxygen flow and a medication regimen, including a steroid, Koering said.
“They were pushing a lot of oxygen in me, let’s just put it that way,” Koering said. “Because I was really having a hard time breathing. He said if I would have waited much longer, he said I could have been really in bad trouble.”
Koering first began to feel sick Oct. 21 with what felt like a cold: body aches, fatigue, a cough. He never lost his taste or smell, he said, but he could feel his breathing become increasingly labored as time went on. After learning he tested positive, he did not seek the monoclonal antibody treatment, saying he didn’t know enough about it.
"I think I made a mistake by not getting vaccinated."
— Paul Koering
Monoclonal antibodies are laboratory-made proteins that mimic the immune system’s ability to fight off harmful pathogens such as viruses, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The treatment has proven successful in preventing hospitalization in COVID-19 patients if taken early enough in the progression of the disease.
“I probably should have been doing a better job talking to my personal doctor,” Koering said. “But for some reason I was trying desperately to take care of myself at home, which turned out to be a mistake.”
Koering said at home alone, fear and anxiety began to overtake him as he realized it was no longer possible for him to breathe deeply.
“It felt like somebody was sitting on my chest. It was just hard to take a deep breath, you know. It was just like taking small little breaths,” he said. “Once I got up to the hospital and they got me on a lot of oxygen … it seemed like I was able to not feel like I was in a panic. Because I couldn’t breathe.
“ … I was scared. I was really scared. And even now, I’m hoping this doesn’t continue on. But I’m finding myself extremely emotional just, you know, even thinking about it. It just makes me kind of get teary-eyed because — I don’t know, I think it’s just because I don’t know that I took it seriously enough. And it is deadly serious. I’m certainly going to do whatever my doctor tells me to do moving forward after I’m hopefully back to 100%.”
How he feels day to day after he was discharged Nov. 7 ranges from pretty good to terrible. He’s never been this tired in his life, he said. He feels weak, as if he lost all muscle tone lying in a hospital bed. He did not develop pneumonia, but an X-ray while in the ICU revealed damage to his lungs.
With no known pre-existing conditions besides “a few extra pounds,” Koering said he never imagined himself in this condition, worrying about permanent after-effects after days spent wondering whether he would live at all.
And he regrets expressing skepticism about COVID-19 at times when the topic arose during public meetings, but the self-described most conservative county board member and former Republican state legislator noted he never sympathized with those sharing misinformation about the available vaccines.
“After being in intensive care for six days and talking to the nurses, talking to the doctors — these are the health care professionals that know what they’re doing. They know the treatment we should have, and the vaccination we should have. And you have to rely on them,” Koering said. “They’re the people that are there to care for us when we’re sick. I mean, it’s just kind of a no-brainer. It’s a huge lesson learned for me. I’m almost kind of embarrassed, you know, but I’m so happy that these people — they kind of saved me, in essence. So yeah. Believe me, I’m gonna listen to my doctor from now on, rather than being so bullheaded.”
After what he called a life-changing experience, Koering said he feels like a different person. Filled with gratitude for those at Cuyuna Regional Medical Center who cared for him and buoyed by those who reached out with well wishes and encouragement, he said he plans to practice kindness and understanding more often in the future.
"These are the health care professionals that know what they’re doing. They know the treatment we should have, and the vaccination we should have. And you have to rely on them."
— Paul Koering
“I don’t feel like I have any meanness in me anymore. Actually, I think it might change me,” he said. “I don’t know, I think it depends on if I get back to 100%. And when I do get back to 100%, I should say, and I feel passionate about something, I would imagine that I’m going to be as vigorous toward it as ever. But I feel at least at this point, I feel it’s a lot easier to be kind than to be mean and lash out.
“You know, I think you can govern in a couple different ways. You can kind of burn the whole place down. Or you can try to figure out where you can work together with somebody. And then when you can’t work together, I think you can still be nice about it. I think this whole thing is gonna have a huge effect on my life.”
One thing’s for sure — the deep orange and crimson sunset that capped the day Nov. 7, the day of Koering’s release, served as a visual reminder of how lucky he felt to be alive. The lifelong Crow Wing County resident often shares photos of sunsets on social media from the westward-facing vantage point of his lake home. But this one touched him in a way like no other before it.
“There was the most beautiful sunset and the whole lake was just orange. … It just told me that the good Lord had given me another day. And it was kind of a perfect end to the day. So, yeah. I guess that’s it.”