BILLINGS — On a small patch of grass outside of the RiverStone Health Campus on the corner of 1st Avenue South and South 27th street sits a sobering reminder: 437 blue flags, one for each COVID-19 death in Yellowstone County. The number rose to 439 Monday afternoon after the state's latest report.
The memorial was set up on a day that was supposed to honor the nation's healthcare workers.
"Today is not only National Public Health Thank You day, but it’s also the Monday before Thanksgiving," said RiverStone Vice President of Communications Barbara Schneeman. "These flags are symbolizing one less chair at the table this year."
About 20 workers gathered for a moment of silence to remember those lost. Schneeman has had to write a press release for every one of them.
"It doesn’t get any easier," she said. "It actually gets a little sadder each time. There are nearly 450 flags. That’s tremendous. That's a lot of people in our community who are no longer here."
Usually, organizations around the country mark the day for celebration of public health contributors, but Schneeman admits this year is filled with different emotions.
"It is very sad to see deaths continue," she said. "Thanksgiving is such a family holiday. Recognizing that many families will not have loved ones there due to the pandemic is especially hard. It's a time to reflect."
Possibly to reflect on this time last year, which marked Montana’s worst in its battle with the first round of the pandemic. Schneeman fears history might repeat itself.
"I am personally concerned about seeing a rise in cases after the holidays. One thing we've been telling people, if they’re around people who are not vaccinated, or they can't confirm their vaccination status, please mask up. If you’re not feeling well, don’t go to those holiday gatherings, to protect family and friends around you."
She’s not looking forward to the reality of another press release turning into another flag.