March marks one year in a global pandemic; Yellowstone County leaders reflect

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Posted at 1:14 PM, Mar 11, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-11 19:46:35-05

BILLINGS – Yellowstone County hit another milestone this week as another person died from the COVID-19 virus, bringing the county’s total to 241.

Each day since the pandemic began, those with RiverStone Health have sent out a media release for every individual who lost their battle with the virus. It's just one way Health Officer John Felton said they’ve tried to commemorate the milestones of the pandemic.

And it's just another way that many of our community leaders tasked with making the tough decisions regarding restrictions and safety have been impacted since the pandemic began one year ago.

On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization classified the coronavirus a global pandemic.

That same day, the first case of COVID-19 was reported in Montana from a part-time resident who was traveling and living in Maryland.

The next day, on March 12, former Montana Gov. Steve Bullock declared a state of emergency in the state due to the virus.

One year later we are reflecting as leaders in our community look back at the decisions that were made and talking about personal struggles they themselves endured.

March 13, 2020 was a significant day for Felton because it was the day Yellowstone County saw its first case of the virus, and for him, a series of events followed.

“For me, it's one of those days like, you know, I know where I was when (like) 9/11, the Challenger (explosion),” he said.

“I was in a parking lot of Wendy’s. I can just about tell you the parking space I was in. My cell phone rang and it was the state health department saying (we) have our first case,” he said. “My reaction was sort of a mixed, you know. We've been waiting, and the anticipation was, we're going to do something kind of mixed, (but) what are we going to do?”

John Felton full interview on pandemic anniversary

That next Monday, on March 16, Felton issued his first health order set for the next seven days, which essentially shut down bars, restaurants, and casinos by 8 p.m., but still allowing for take-out orders.

Even back then, he said, it was the most difficult decision he’s even had to make.

“I would have to titrate risk in my mind, if we do those things, we reduce the risk of spread of disease, but we increase the risk related to economic vitality and social connectedness,” said Felton.

Now, with a vaccine in the mix and cases on the decline, Montana has lifted many COVID restrictions in recent months and Yellowstone County’s cases are looking much better, with as little as 15 new cases a day, compared to hundreds of new cases a day months ago.

And months ago, Felton's decisions regarding restrictions were met with much controversy.

“This became a very polarizing issue,” he said. “I'm not sure how wearing a mask becomes a political statement, but it does.”

In August of 2020, Felton re-evaluated a decision to allow no spectators at school sports events, saying cases will continue to be monitored but that no one decision could determine whether restrictions would be relaxed.

“I got a lot of emails, and a lot of phone calls and a few letters and I think what I came to is, in my position, I don't have the luxury of picking one piece and saying, this is all that matters,” he said. “As I said, all the good choices are gone. So every option hurt everybody to some degree and what we've tried to do is what's the least harmful.”

Earlier, Superintendent of School District 2 Greg Upham issued a letter to parents with several measures the district would take to combat the spread of COVID-19.

“I can remember sitting down having dinner and watching the 5:30 news and watching it kind of come this way, almost like a winter storm,” he said.

By March 14, the Montana state basketball tournament was halted during championship night due to COVID-19 concerns. Then on March 15, Bullock ordered all schools in Montana to close.

The virus continued to spread rapidly across Montana in the summer months and into the fall as school was getting ready to start up again.

Upham had a decision to make- to continue with remote learning or get students and staff back into the classroom? It was a decision, he said, he didn’t take lightly.

Greg Upham interview on pandemic anniversary

“Starting school live, by making this decision I felt it was right. I reached out to our medical professionals. You know I worked with everyone, and it was, there was so much trepidation at the end of the day when I said we're going to go,” said Upham. “It was the most difficult decision and I felt in my gut it was right.”

All the while, both Felton and Upham were dealing with their own personal struggles with the virus that many in the community never even knew about.

Felton disclosed that threats were made toward him regarding decisions he made concerning COVID-19 restrictions.

“You know, I really honestly didn't pay much attention to the ones that just sort of said you dirty so-and-so, but (there) were several that we did report to law enforcement because they were specific enough that they made me nervous,” he said.

Upham feared for the safety of his grown children, one on the frontlines as a nurse and another with a baby on the way.

“As a superintendent overseeing the largest school district in the state I had a family member who was in the hospital with people dying from COVID and caring for them, and then a son who he and his wife were pregnant,” said Upham. “So I was feeling it.”