John Testerman was a man who did not step back from a challenge. He had a long and successful career building homes and developing communities across Knox County. He knew how to overcome adversity.
In his last days, though, John Testerman was scared.
In retirement, he had developed dementia, and he and his family — his wife of 68 years, Leslie, his two daughters, his grandchildren and great-grandchildren — coped with his decline.
In July, he was dealt another blow. He tested positive for COVID-19.
“He was super anxious,” said his daughter Chris Testerman.
“He couldn’t really eat or swallow. He didn’t know what was going on, and he was super scared. He needed medicines to decrease the anxiety, help sedate him and help him through really the dying process.”
John Testerman died from complications from COVID-19 at Parkwest Hospital on Aug. 13. He was 89 years old, and his family knew the end was eventually coming, but his death wasn’t the peaceful one they had imagined for their patriarch.
Testerman is one of 53 Knox County residents who died of COVID-19 in July and August, the deadliest months of the pandemic by far.
The county saw a shocking surge in fatalities right as the community reopened after a relatively strict lockdown this spring. From March through June, five Knox County residents died. Then sick people began to die almost daily.
Thirty-four in July. Nineteen in August.
To put the deaths into perspective, the surge means there have been 10 times as many COVID-19 deaths in the past two months compared to the rest of the pandemic.
The pain is real for so many families.
Chris Testerman said her mother, Leslie, 90, also tested positive for the disease in July. In his final days, John had several visits with his wife, who was allowed in a room with him because she already had a mild case of the disease, and with Chris because she is a physician. He never opened his eyes or spoke. John’s other daughter Hanley Roach and his caretakers visited once he was moved from an coronavirus isolation floor.
The disease hit him hard. He lost his sense of smell and taste, and then his appetite. As he ate less, he became more confused, and was hospitalized first on the isolated floor before he was moved to palliative care in early August.
Chris Testerman shared details with Knox News about her father’s death because she knows a communitywide approach is the only way to make sure other vulnerable people don’t succumb to COVID-19.
“Whether you think you’re going to get ill or not, you need to respect that this is a real virus,” she said. “People that have underlying health problems may get over it, but it may also create a death that would not have occurred at that time had the virus not been.”
Over the course of the pandemic, public health experts have repeated that deaths and hospitalizations lag behind case growth. In layman’s terms, it can take weeks for patients to grow seriously ill and die after they test positive for the disease.
That’s what played out in Knox County.
At the beginning of July, a troubling number of new cases caused the Knox County Board of Health to enact a mask mandate after most other restrictions on businesses were lifted. Deaths counts, however, began to climb almost daily just as the mandate went into effect.
The Knox County death totals go hand-in-hand with the worst two months so far. In July, Knox County detected 2,834 new cases of COVID-19. In August, the county detected 2,790. This means over 85% of the county’s total cases occurred within the past two months.
The coronavirus is prevalent and spreading in the community. Roughly one third of the county’s pandemic deaths and 40% of new cases occurred in August. That means that the community is not in decline but rather a potential plateau — a step on a staircase.
With colleges and schools reopened, plus Labor Day parties on the horizon, experts are worried.
“At this moment we’ve definitely, seemingly and consistently slowed down,” said Knox County Board of Health member Dr. James Shamiyeh in an Aug. 26 board meeting. But his optimism was peppered with caution.
He reminded the board that the July spike correlated well to Memorial Day and Independence Day festivities and noted that after Hamilton County opened schools, the rate of case growth increased there.
“They had a nice trend downward, that we currently have, and they’ve started to trend upward,” he continued.
The ability to slow the spread is possible, however, if people follow the precautions repeated over and over by experts. And by those, like Chris Testerman, who have paid the highest price exacted by the virus.
“You have to respect social distancing. You have to respect wearing a mask,” she said. “Even if you have minimal symptoms, just a runny nose with a low-grade fever for a couple of days, that actually can be the virus, and you can have COVID.
“Whether you feel bad or not, you can pass it on to other people.”