JONESBOROUGH, Tenn. (WJHL)–A small crowd of healthcare workers, friends and those who had lost loved ones to COVID huddled together this morning to give a final blessing to Tennessee’s longest-running community organized tribute to the virus’ victims.

Organizer Marat Jean Moore is removing the flags later this month.

“I feel that it’s time to retire these flags, give the blessing that it’s needed for a long time, although it’s had prayers every day,” Moore told News Channel 11. “I just feel a sense of completion with it.”

Moore isn’t removing the flags because she thinks COVID is over. She says she just couldn’t keep up with the maintenance of the makeshift memorial.

Now she hopes the temporary tribute can make way for something permanent, like a mural or sculpture in Johnson City

“This has been a defining event in our region, and in [all] of our communities. So I think it would be very helpful to us as a community to have somewhere to go, to remember,” Moore said.

The total death toll in Northeast Tennessee is now over 2,600, with a death rate 28% higher than the state as a whole.

ICU Nurse Stefanie Annett saw her first COVID patient at Franklin Woods Hospital before volunteering to serve at Johnson City Medical Center in June 2020.

She says the physical memorial is a testament to both the pain of loss and to the bravery of healthcare workers.

“I drive by this every day. And so when I’d come home after a long day, and we lost a lot of patients, and you’d see the numbers go up, and you’d know that they were yours,” Annett told News Channel 11. “I think a lot of people don’t like to discuss COVID. And so it was very nice to be able to have Marat, knowing that somebody was here remembering them.”

Annett also said a permanent memorial could help the community. “This isn’t always an easy topic to talk about,” Annett said. “It’s not easy to go into a room with a COVID patient when everybody else is scared to do so. But I think we as a community and as a people just need to be [braver] and stand up for things that are right, that we believe in.”

Moore recounted numerous stories of connections made through the memorial whether it was traffic slowing down as they passed the flags or the members from ETSU’s Kappa Delta who inscribed white flags to represent healthcare workers.

She said she’d come to think of the flags as a memorial for “peace, love and remembrance.”

Though the pandemic may seem over, the suffering will have a long-lasting effect.

“There’s another kind of long COVID, and it is the long COVID of grief and the long COVID of memory.”

People who’ve lost a loved one or healthcare worker to COVID and would like to place a temporary flag can reach out to Moore at until Dec. 11.