At the heart of every story about coronavirus loss and tragedy is the question of what happens next.
How do we go on? How do we heal? How do we rebuild?
How do we grow to a better tomorrow — not just personally, but as a community and a nation? As humankind?
There is no easy answer. Every life, every external circumstance, every community is slightly different.
But there is a universal answer. Just make it happen. Do it. Have hope and keep faith.
Since mid-March when our first local case was confirmed, at least 360 residents of the Chattanooga region have lost their lives due to the coronavirus, including 87 people in Hamilton County and 59 in Whitfield County.
More than a third of those lost loved ones — and they were all someone's wife or husband, son or daughter, sister or brother or best friend — died in August, the deadliest month here to date with 122 fatalities. Now September, with 55 regional deaths in its first two weeks, is proving to be no slouch as a painmaker.
The numbers don't look any better nationally. Just on Tuesday, the United States reported 36,985 new COVID-19 infections and 1,077 virus-related deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University.
That's the equivalent of roughly 1 in 5 of every man, woman and child in the city of Chattanooga. Or all of Cookeville. Or four Winchesters or Signal Mountains. Just in one day.
It was mid-August when Elizabeth Evans wheeled her parents — Carolyn and Jan Evans — into a Chattanooga hospital and began the "nightmare" of losing them to COVID-19 just weeks apart.
Despite their tradition of Southern hospitality, the family did the best it could to social distance, but the parents, lonely and bored from time spent in isolation, would stop for food on the way home from routine doctors' appointments.
Within days, Evans had to watch her mother's final breaths from the hallway through a window.
"I was not allowed in the room — could not touch her or be with her to comfort her. It was the most helpless feeling I have experienced," Evans told The Times Free Press.
Some two weeks later, her father developed complications after being moved out of the COVID unit. Evans was able to be with him in his final moments.
Andrew Marsh lost his father, Dalton, Georgia local legend Hubert Marsh, 69, to coronavirus on Aug. 31. The elder Marsh had worked for the Whitfield County Health Department for 30 years and retired as director of the Teen Resource Health Center. Now the younger Marsh has a singular message for anyone who asks what they can do to help.
"Wear a mask, socially distance yourself, get tested," he said. "There is so much misinformation about COVID-19. I lost my father way earlier than he should have gone as a result of being around someone asymptomatic. I'm trying to make people understand it's not a big city problem. This has nothing to do with politics. It has everything to do with decency and being what we've always considered ourselves of being, as Americans."
We could not say it better.
In this region's first six months of COVID pain, we shunned masks and had very few tests because those medical supplies were needed for the sickest patients. We saw schools closed for the last weeks of the 2019-2020 school year. Thousands were furloughed, laid off — at best allowed to work from home. Unemployment jumped to a record high across Tennessee and Georgia, while "essential" workers braved the possibility of infection as best they could.
Along the way we got hit by Easter tornadoes — seven of them in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia, killing 11 and destroying thousands of homes. So much for our all-too-brief stay-at-home orders.
In early May, those orders, including Hamilton County's, were allowed to expire, actions that proved to be short-sighted. In the first week of May, the county averaged about four new cases a day, but by the end of May, Hamilton was averaging 63 cases a day.
Then came protests, as crowds of Black and white people — most wearing masks — took to the streets to protest police brutality after George Floyd died under the knee of a Minnesota police officer. By July, the coronavirus was widespread in Chattanooga in all ZIP codes, ages and demographics. And counties across the region, especially Bradley and Polk in Tennessee, and Murray and Whitfield in Georgia, were seeing spikes of their own.
In August, with cases and deaths still ticking up, Hamilton County rightly implemented a mask mandate. The hope was that the extra precaution would make it safer to open schools at mid-month and bring back the economic engine of the region's tourism.
But in the ensuing weeks, one after another class or ball team has been quarantined. Officials said social gatherings such as parties and carpooling — not classroom interaction (where masks are not required) — has been driving COVID-19 case surges in young people. Pardon us, but we wonder what part of parties and carpooling are not also very much part of school.
That brings us back to our central question: How do we grow to a better tomorrow?
We just have to do it, make it happen. Have hope and keep faith.
But we also must accept the simple fact that hope and faith alone — without our own dogged precautions — will not be enough to get us through this. Defeating COVID-19 and rebuilding our lives will take all of the effort we can put into it.