Less than a year since reporting its first death, Northeast Tennessee’s novel coronavirus death toll has reached 1,000, an almost incomprehensible loss that few could have imagined when the region reported its first cases of the disease last March.
In the 337 days since the region reported its first virus-related fatality in Greene County on April 1, at least 1,000 Northeast Tennesseans have lost their lives to COVID-19 — the virus infecting nearly a tenth of the region’s population in less than a year, with more than 50,000 infections reported in the region’s eight counties.
As more people contracted the disease, the death toll mounted, taking more than five months to reach 100 before growing to 500 three months later. Eighty-four days later, that toll reached the 1,000 mark.
The region, like much of the nation, was particularly hard-hit between Nov. 1 and Jan. 31.
In that 91-day span, more than 636 people from this region were reported to have died of the virus. The wave of deaths forced some regional hospitals already inundated with COVID-19 patients to bring in refrigerated morgue trailers to store excess bodies.
And though new reported deaths have fallen by nearly 50% since then, the region has continued to see deaths mount, with more than 100 dead in the 31 days since the beginning of February.
Behind each of those anonymous deaths reported by hospitals and health departments, however, was a person.
Many of them died alone in hospitals, hooked up to numerous machines, their families unable to say goodbye to them except through a screen. Their stories have been shared on social media, in newspapers, on TV and at press conferences throughout the pandemic, while their obituaries made their way onto our news feeds and in our local newspapers almost daily — a constant reminder of the toll the virus has exacted on our communities.
Those we’ve lost represent people from all walks of life in all parts of our communities: A firefighter in Bluff City; a former city attorney in Rogersville; a guidance counselor in Johnson City; a grandfather and deacon in Unicoi. They were parents, grandparents, siblings, friends and esteemed members of their communities, all killed by the same invisible force that’s impacted everyone in some way, big and small.
Ballad Health Chief Infection Prevention Officer Jamie Swift said it’s hard to quantify that amount of loss.
“It’s heartbreaking, it is devastating, but we talk a lot about when there are numbers that large it’s easier to somewhat disconnect from when people are just consuming numbers,” Swift said, “but if you stop and think, that’s a thousand lives lost in this region and families that are affected — it’s what we tried so hard to prevent. That’s the thing that we take personally.
“We worked extremely hard to try and prevent every single case and every single death,” Swift said.
Dr. Clay Runnels, Ballad’s chief physician executive, said the speed at which the tragedy unfolded likely led to people being unable to process the gradual loss that occurred over several months.
“It happened slowly so people became, maybe, numb to the numbers,” Runnels said, “and I don’t think that’s unusual when something occurs over a period of time, but if you contrast that with if we had a disaster here locally and it killed a thousand people what the reaction would be. And that’s essentially what has happened, but our disaster has happened over a period of 8-10 months.”
East Tennessee State University’s College of Public Health Dean Dr. Randy Wykoff said those deaths have a ripple effect that extends far beyond the numbers.
“We tend to not even think of the ripple effect,” Wykoff said. “A thousand deaths is a significant number in our region, and is anywhere. And sometimes people say these people were going to die anyway, but that’s true of all of us. We’re all going to die, (but) it doesn’t take away the years of potential life that was lost.”
In Carter County, the virus claimed the life of a former state representative who served in World War II, a man who taught refrigeration at a local technical school and that of a grandfather who was passionate about Ford Thunderbirds and loved banana splits, along with 152 others. Greene County lost a “lion for education” in county school board member Clark Justis, a former county coroner who was a lifetime member of the Greeneville Emergency and Rescue Squad and the life of a 46-year-old father of three. Greene County has seen 145 die from the virus.
Kingsport lost its first African American alderman and former vice mayor, Richard Watterson, 94, to the virus, a man described by his son as having true compassion and love for all people who believed in everybody regardless of race or ethnicity. In Bluff City, it killed a firefighter who caught the virus while responding to a fire call. They are among Sullivan County’s 274 dead, the highest toll in the region.
In Johnson City, COVID-19 took the life of beloved middle school guidance counselor Cindy Torbett, 55, a woman described as a wonderfully kind, generous and hard-working person — someone who was known for her service to children. It also killed another World War II veteran who once played football at the University of Alabama, a grandfather who loved family gatherings and Western movies, an artist who loved snow sculptures and mural paintings and a woman who cared for her siblings during the Dust Bowl. Washington County’s death toll is second-highest in the region, 234 as of March 4.
The region’s more rural counties weren’t spared.
Unicoi lost 47, Johnson 38 and Hancock County, the region’s least populated county, saw 12 die. Hawkins County, which has nearly the same population as Carter, has lost nearly 100 to the virus, including a former city attorney and Vietnam veteran.
And while vaccines make their way into more and more people, bringing us closer to returning to some semblance of normalcy, it won’t bring back those we lost. For every person who will celebrate their ability to once again crowd into bars and restaurants mask-less and care free, others will be mourning a life taken too soon.