When the pandemic first hit, Sarah Holt worked nonstop, running on adrenaline and buoyed by the cheers, songs and free coffee and pizza for health-care workers at Utah’s Intermountain Medical Center, where she’s a registered nurse.

Several months in, she learned firsthand what it’s like to battle covid-19 – she and her husband contracted the coronavirus, isolating for three weeks in the fall. Like countless other health-care workers, she went back to the grind of treating patients once she tested negative and felt better.

But as the virus began spreading faster, she started to notice that public enthusiasm for health-care workers had subsided.

For the most part, the cheering crowds throughout the country have disappeared.

That is why a recent small kindness had outsize meaning for her. It arrived during a covid-19 caseload spike in Salt Lake County.

It was a bright yellow insulated bottle – the kind that became popular pre-pandemic among young people. Inside the Hydro Flask were gift cards for coffee and to a restaurant, a $5 bill, lip balm and mascara.

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The anonymous gesture was in recognition of Holt’s dedication. And even better, someone had nominated her for it. A note was tucked inside the bottle, thanking her for her service during the pandemic and giving her instructions on how to nominate another health-care worker for a Hug in a Cup.

The name Hug in a Cup might sound corny, but the sentiment wasn’t.

“I loved it because it was a reminder that after a rough year, people truly cared,” said Holt, 37, who has worked as a nurse for 15 years. “And whoever nominated me for the bottle knew that yellow was my favorite color.”

Holt anonymously nominated a co-worker to receive one, which is just what the organizers hoped would happen. The project was started by four friends from Idaho Falls, Idaho, in November.

Candace Jones, Jenna Johnson, Courtney Adams and Melanie Powell came up with their Hug in a Cup Initiative after they noticed that support for health-care workers wasn’t as robust as it was in the spring.

More on the COVID-19 pandemic

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“People doing 12-hour shifts are working their tails off,” said Adams, 37, a postpartum nurse and mother of three.

Jones is a mother of four whose husband, Brian Jones, runs a family practice and works night shifts at Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center. She said her husband noted the difference.

“My husband saw tons of support last March, when everyone was doing whatever they could for health-care workers to show they were appreciated,” said Jones, 37. “But as the pandemic wore on, it seemed like everyone became exhausted by it all and a lot of people stopped paying attention.”

Johnson said she wanted to give health-care workers a small donation to buy coffee or cocoa for a “hug in a cup,” and the idea grew from there.

After they had lined up local businesses to contribute food and drink gift cards, they delivered several dozen bottles to local doctors and nurses during Thanksgiving week. (Makeup was included for women.) Since then, they have donated about 60 flasks, at an average cost of $35, to health-care workers in Idaho Falls and other towns throughout the Intermountain West.

Now they’re making plans to send out hundreds more nationwide after the Hydro Flask company heard about their efforts and contributed 500 of the insulated stainless-steel bottles to their cause earlier this month.

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“This is something we can do to show people on the front lines that we haven’t forgotten about them – they mattered last spring, and they matter now,” said Johnson, 35, a mother of four who runs two small businesses. “So many of these people rarely get a break, and they deserve our support.”

Johnson said she was moved to do something after witnessing the toll of covid-19 over the past year. Her husband, Matthew Johnson, is the director of an Idaho Falls senior center that was hit hard by the coronavirus.

“Right after the funeral of a beloved resident who died of the virus, my husband and I both got it and were down for two weeks,” she said. “It was an extremely difficult time – almost everybody at the care center had it.”

When Johnson and her friends came up with the idea, they told friends and family about it on social media and raised more than $1,500 – enough to buy 50 insulated flasks, she said.

Olivia Beckman, a registered nurse at the Lincoln Court Retirement Community in Idaho Falls, was among the first to receive a Hug in a Cup.

“It’s been a really tough year, and I was grateful to find out my boss had nominated me,” said Beckman, 28, who tested positive for the coronavirus after an outbreak at the assisted-living center.

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“I lost my sense of smell and taste for 10 days, but that’s as bad as it got for me,” she said. “It was heart-wrenching to see how it affected so many of our residents. We lost six of them – each one was like losing a family member.”

When Beckman opened her Hug in Cup, she said, the timing was spot on.

“It came as a pat on the back at the perfect time,” she said. “If I could nominate every single front-line health-care worker in the country to receive one, I would.”

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