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Felton reflects on two years of pandemic

Posted at 5:29 PM, Mar 15, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-15 19:36:00-04

BILLINGS — It’s been two years since the first case of COVID-19 was reported in Yellowstone County. RiverStone Health CEO and president, John Felton, reflected Tuesday on the global pandemic with what was learned and his key takeaways.

The first case of COVID-19 was reported on March 13, 2020.

“It went from basically nothing to full onslaught, basically over that weekend,” Felton said.

In the last two years, 545 Yellowstone County residents have lost their lives to COVID-19.

Without a structure like the Unified Health Command in place, it could have been far worse, Felton said.

The command is made up of RiverStone Health, Billings Clinic, St. Vincent Healthcare, and Yellowstone County Disaster and Emergency Services.

They had conducted exercises before the pandemic even started in case anything like it ever occurred. Felton said that was critical at the beginning of the pandemic.

“Don’t wait for something to happen before you put those structures in place, even if you’re just practicing,” Felton said.

Guidance had to be constantly updated as new variants made their way around the county.

“The ability to be nimble and sort of turn on a dime is really critical,” Felton said.

Health officials had no idea the pandemic would last this long.

“We underestimated really how long this was going to take,” Felton said.

These last two years have taken a toll on health care and public health workers.

“PTSD among public health workers and health workers that is the silent but probably the biggest long term effect of this thing,” Felton said.

He says collectively, health institutions have lost good workers throughout the last couple of years.

Part of that has to do with the politicization of the pandemic, something that Felton calls unprecedented.

“This sense that you had to take a position. Those positions became really deeply entrenched,” Felton said.

He even compared it to a notable college rivalry.

“It was sort of like Cats, Griz on steroids, you know, you have to have a side,” Felton said.

It’s been a tumultuous period for Felton himself. He’s been subjected to multiple threats, something that he said he couldn’t have endured without the help of his family and community.

“I can’t imagine trying to do it alone. Organization, family, and friends are really critical when you’re going through that,” Felton said.

As for the end of the pandemic, though cases and hospitalization numbers have plummeted, there’s no telling when it’ll all be over.

“It’s over when society decides it’s over. The virus will not go away. We’re going to continue to have cases, in the fall it’s likely to go up again,” Felton said.

He hopes the community can take it one day at a time, without the hostility that was seen in the past two years.

“I think we lost a lot of civility. I would just like to see a little more civility and kindness in the world when these things happen,” Felton said.