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The world’s oldest COVID-19 survivor?

Phil Corio, 108, survived a bout of COVID-19. His 58-year-old son Ron Corio, standing behind Phil, caught the virus first and apparently gave it to his father. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

At 108, Phil Corio is certainly one of the oldest people in New Mexico and the U.S.

But now the Los Ranchos resident has a new claim to fame: he just might be the oldest person in the world to survive COVID-19.

Phil’s son, 58-year-old Ron Corio, said he and his dad both got sick with the virus in March, although they didn’t know they had it until after they both recovered.

Phil said he remembers being sick and going to the hospital, but that it seemed “about the same” as having the flu.

“I’m OK,” Phil said in a video interview with the Journal on Tuesday. “I didn’t even know I had it. … I guess if I knew I had it I might have been scared.”

Phil Corio, center, with his brothers in 1926.

Another era

Phil was born Feb. 22, 1912, and grew up in Jersey City, New Jersey, one of eight siblings. His sole surviving sister is now 102.

COVID-19 is not the first pandemic in Phil’s lifetime. He was 6 years old when the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic broke out, though he has no personal memories of the disease that wiped out millions.

What Phil does recall is growing up with gas lanterns and no electricity as a young boy, and seeing Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig play at Yankee Stadium in New York.

In a YouTube video, his granddaughter Katie Corio filmed when he turned 105 in 2018, Phil recalled playing lots of sports as a teenager, including pool at a local club with Frank Sinatra, who grew up in nearby Hoboken.

“I knew him growing up,” Phil said in the recording. “I shot pool with him and beat him easy. We told him to get a regular job, because we were working on the (Jersey) shore for $25 a week and making a lot more money than him, but he stuck to singing.”

Marriage, family

Phil worked in construction and trucking for a while, and ended up at Becton Dickson medical supply company, where he stayed until retirement. He married in 1956 and had two sons – Ron and older brother Philip Corio.

Phil remembers his late wife, Margaret Corio, fondly.

“She was the greatest,” Phil said. “She was easy-going and she loved kids. She was a great cook and she had a great laugh.”

Margaret died in 2000. The couple had been married 44 years.

Phil Corio with his wife, Margaret, in 1989. Corio, 108, became sick with COVID-19 in March and has since recovered. He believes he may be the oldest person in New Mexico. (Courtesy of Phil Corio)

Move to NM

By 2000, Ron was firmly established in New Mexico, where he had moved in 1979 and, 10 years later, founded his company – the now-well-known Array Technologies. Today the company is the nation’s largest manufacturer of solar tracking systems – used to tilt and turn solar panels to follow the sun – and employs more than 300 people.

The year after his mother’s death, Ron brought his dad to Albuquerque to live with him.

Phil practiced carpentry as a hobby, so Ron set up a wood shop at Array Technologies, where he went every day until last year, making things like cutting boards and cabinets.

In April 2019, Phil had a small stroke, making many previous activities like woodworking more difficult, and making fluid conversations a little harder.

No fever, no test

Back in early March, when the coronavirus still apparently had not reached New Mexico, Ron got sick.

It started with a sore throat that progressed to a severe cough and difficulty breathing. He thought it was just the flu since no COVID-19 cases had yet been reported in New Mexico.

About a week later, his father also got a bad sore throat and chest cough and started vomiting. On March 13, Phil fainted in the bathroom of Ron’s house in Los Ranchos.

“My dad went into the bathroom and then I heard a crash,” Ron said. “He had fainted and fell back on the floor. I found him with his eyes open but he wasn’t talking, so I called an ambulance.”

The hospital admitted Phil, diagnosed him with pneumonia and gave him antibiotics.

“I asked them to test my dad for coronavirus, but he didn’t have a fever so they said he didn’t meet the criteria,” Ron said. “He was there three days, and was next to a nearby hall that was under quarantine. I wanted to get him out of there, so I took him home and he’s gotten better since then.”

Tested later

About two weeks ago, Ron got tested for coronavirus at Southwest Labs in Albuquerque, which sends people’s blood samples to the Mayo Clinic to test for virus antibodies. It came back positive, so Ron had his father and Phil’s two home caregivers tested as well. The caregivers came back negative, but Phil’s tests were “indeterminate.”

“Dad came back ‘almost positive,’ so I consulted with our doctor, who diagnosed him as positive because he was very close on the scale and had developed pneumonia, and I had already tested positive,” Ron said. “The doctor said at my father’s age his immune response is not as strong, but he diagnosed him as positive because where else would he get those antibodies? That’s how we found out we had the coronavirus.”

While there’s no way to know for certain, Phil very possibly could be the world’s oldest COVID-19 survivor. In April, a New York Post story named 107-year-old Cornelia Ras of the Netherlands as possibly the oldest to recover from the disease, and ABC News profiled 106-year-old Connie Titchen, a British woman who also weathered the illness.

This week, Phil is more tired than usual and still recovering.

Ron, meanwhile, feels back to normal, but said it was a terrible experience.

“It was the worst flu I ever had,” Ron said. “I walked to the mailbox one day when I was sick and on the way back I went into a coughing fit and was gasping for air. I almost fainted.”

‘Keep breathing’

In the 2018 interview with his granddaughter, Phil philosophized a little on life.

“I never thought I’d reach this age,” he said. “I was lucky and I ate a lot of good food – earth grains, not processed.”

Asked his secret to longevity, Phil said, “No smoking and keep breathing.”

Now, at 108 and despite the coronavirus, Phil said he doesn’t feel very different.

“I never take any medicines, just some eye drops,” he told the Journal. “I play checkers, and I watch TV, mostly sports.”

Ron said his father needs more care now, but he was self-sufficient until 107.

“Thank God everything was fine in the end with the coronavirus and he recovered,” Ron said. “He won’t live forever, so every year is a gift. He’s a very resilient, healthy guy who just keeps going, like the Energizer Bunny.”

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