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A Texan Helps People Visualize How Immense COVID-19 Death Toll Is

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More than 25,000 Texans have died from COVID-19 since March. But even as that large number continues to grow, the data and numbers can feel abstract or impersonal. Marisa Charpentier of member station KUT reports on one man in Austin who's trying to help people visualize the immensity of that death toll.

MARISA CHARPENTIER, BYLINE: Shane Reilly hasn't mowed his lawn in eight months, but the grass isn't growing much anyway. It doesn't get much sunlight these days.

SHANE REILLY: Currently right now the flags stretch from my driveway, which is on the far corner of one street, all the way around to my neighbor's driveway, which is on the complete opposite street.

CHARPENTIER: His yard overflows with marking flags - you know, the small, brightly colored, plastic ones used on work sites to show where water or power lines might go. But Reilly isn't preparing for any upcoming construction. The flags are a memorial. Since May, he stuck one in the ground for every Texan who has died from COVID-19.

REILLY: It looks like a field of wildflowers, which some people think is pretty. But once you read the sign, it kind of strikes you that each one of these flags represents a person who's no longer here. And hopefully, it has a more impactful message than, look at those flags everywhere.

CHARPENTIER: Reilly is an artist, and he was frustrated by people who weren't taking the pandemic seriously. So he wanted to get their attention. It's now December, and Texas has lost more than 25,000 people to the virus, second only to New York. Some days he has trouble keeping up. It wasn't long before people started to see the project as more of a memorial than a work of art. One day over the summer, a young boy and his grandparents visited the yard.

REILLY: The woman comes around the corner over here. She says she just wanted to say thank you for doing this. And she points to the boy she's with. It's her grandson. She says, one of these flags represents his mom.

CHARPENTIER: Throughout the pandemic, Reilly has received letters encouraging him to keep going. He's also gotten donations of flags and cash to help him buy more. He told me over the phone that the project no longer belongs to him.

REILLY: You know, I'm just the caretaker of it. This seems to belong to everyone that has lost somebody or who knows somebody that has lost somebody.

CHARPENTIER: As the deaths continue to rise, Reilly is looking for a larger, more permanent home for the project. He's hoping to put it somewhere with more visibility like on a median near the Texas state capitol. For now, Reilly keeps planting. Several months in, he still makes an effort to recognize what each flag represents. It's not always easy.

REILLY: Unfortunately, I have had to build up some sort of callus. At one point, when we were around 5,000 people, it was really weighing on me each time I put the flag in. And so I consciously make the effort to recognize that they're a person, but it gets overwhelming. And there's only so much you can carry, you know?

CHARPENTIER: Some of the flags have endured a lot - rain, summer heat, cold nights. And several are completely faded, bright red turned to white.

REILLY: I don't know if it's going to change anybody's mind anymore. But, you know, at least I'm trying to say something. And, you know, maybe three or four people look at it and say, yeah, OK, I'll put the mask on.

CHARPENTIER: As vaccines slowly trickle out, he says that's all you can really hope for. For NPR News, I'm Marisa Charpentier in Austin.

(SOUNDBITE OF KEANE SONG, "ATLANTIC") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.