At this point, the Covid-19 pandemic — and its impact on the world — needs no introduction.
The virus has taken a devastating toll globally: To date, more than 78 million people have been infected, and 1.7 million have died. In the U.S. alone, there have been more than 18 million cases and 320,000 deaths.
Here, we take a look at the trajectory of the pandemic this year through STAT headlines — starting in January when the World Health Organization got its first hint that a new virus was spreading in China, to December when the U.S. gave emergency authorization to two different Covid-19 vaccines.
The earliest sign that the new disease that had been spreading in China was a virus came pretty soon into the new year. Until that point, news reports only referred to it as a “mysterious pneumonia-like illness” and there were few clues about the pathogen’s nature. Researchers worked quickly to sequence the virus and learn more about it.
It took less than a month between the identification of the new virus in Wuhan, China, and its arrival in the U.S. (and other major travel hubs). The first case — in a person in Washington state — came as the WHO raised the possibility that the virus was transmitting in an ongoing, sustained manner between people. And in the days that followed, this first case ballooned to community-wide transmission. It also emerged that people who weren’t experiencing or exhibiting symptoms could transmit the virus.
Even before a formal pandemic was declared, there was a run on protective supplies — including masks, gowns, and other equipment — for health care workers. Demand was skyrocketing as were prices for the few available supplies. And although the situation now is not as bad as it was in the spring, record hospitalizations still mean that many facilities are quickly running through their stockpile.
Soon after the first U.S. case was identified, the first outbreak in a nursing home occurred in Washington state. Throughout the pandemic, nursing homes have been among the most acutely affected by Covid-19, given that their residents often have many other conditions — such as cardiovascular disease — that have since been shown to be risk factors for Covid-19. At one point, residents of long-term care facilities accounted for a quarter of all Covid-19 deaths in the U.S., and now, residents and staff at these facilities are top priority for vaccinations.
As cases worldwide began to spiral out of control, public health experts sounded the alarm and called on governments to “flatten the curve,” i.e. bring the infection rate and case counts back down to a straight, steady line instead of an ever-increasing slope. Some countries like Taiwan, South Korea, and New Zealand have been successful, but many other countries — including the U.S. — have failed to do so.
A lot changed on this fateful day, when the WHO declared Covid-19 to be a pandemic. It was a recognition — and warning — that the novel coronavirus was likely going to spread to every country around the world. Two days later, the U.S. declared a national emergency and instituted a nationwide lockdown. As we would learn later in the year, dictionary searches for “pandemic” hit all-time highs on March 11 as people sought to familiarize themselves with what was to become the new normal.
The U.S. was two weeks into its nationwide lockdown, and many countries were even further into theirs, when experts began warning about the health threat of social isolation and loneliness from being confined to our homes. As the pandemic has worn on and deaths from the coronavirus have added up, there has also been concern about the collective grief society is experiencing — all of which also came in a year that also saw other social unrest and a turbulent presidential election.
Almost a month after the pandemic was officially declared, the White House issued guidance encouraging the public to wear masks when outside to prevent unknowingly spreading the virus to others. The guidance came as new research seemed to indicate a growing number of asymptomatic infections.
This is a refrain that would be heard for many months to come: Covid-19 is affecting people of color — especially Black people — more severely than white individuals. Over and over, research has shown that despite making up the minority of several states’ populations, African Americans, Hispanic individuals, and Native Americans are getting Covid-19 and dying from the infection at higher rates than white patients.
Denial — or magical thinking — plagued the first few months of the pandemic, even as experts saw the growing case numbers. And the inability — or unwillingness — to recognize the imminent danger, and the scale of it, wasted precious weeks at the beginning of the year when governments could have been mobilizing to beat back the virus. The prevailing thought was that because the virus wasn’t as explosive outside China as it was within it, that it didn’t pose as much of a problem. That, of course, turned out to be false.
An exclusive STAT report early in the pandemic showed that the U.S. was not testing nearly enough people to consider reopening on May 1, a date that White House officials cited as the start of phased reopenings across the country. The theme of inadequate — and unreliable — testing has continued throughout the pandemic, as botched testing kits, slow turnaround for results, and false negatives have hampered efforts to know just how far and wide the virus was spreading.
The day the U.S. marked 60,000 Covid-19 deaths seems like a distant memory now, but to try to make these numbers easier to understand at the time, STAT’s Sharon Begley and Hyacinth Empinado examined how Covid-19 deaths fit in with deaths from other health conditions. In 2017, heart disease killed nearly 270,000 people in the U.S., while in 2019, there were nearly 253,000 cancer deaths in this country. Deaths from Covid-19 in the U.S. have since blown past both these figures, and continue to spike.
For the first part of the pandemic, talk of the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine was everywhere, as Trump and other world leaders touted the drug as a Covid-19 therapy, even though scientific evidence was scarce. The Food and Drug Administration went so far as to issue an emergency use authorization for the drug, but revoked it in June following a growing body of studies that showed that the drug was not effective at preventing the infection nor treating those who had been infected.
Experts said over and over that it wasn’t too late to alter the direction of the pandemic in the U.S., with another such warning issued before fall began. Scientists were worried about a double whammy of influenza and Covid-19 overwhelming U.S. hospitals and urged governments to take steps to seriously flatten the curve before the winter months — with their holidays and indoor gatherings — hit.
Months into the pandemic, it emerged that some who had seemingly recovered from their acute illness were still dealing with troubling and debilitating Covid-19 symptoms for months afterward. “Long-haulers,” as they have come to be known, have reported dealing with lingering cardiovascular effects, lasting brain fog, and a host of other conditions.
Six months into the pandemic — and with the U.S. continuing to set records on the number of cases and holding the top spot globally for Covid-19 deaths — STAT’s Andrew Joseph took a deep dive into what the next year of the pandemic could look like, and the possible turning points that could steer the pandemic in a different direction. Some of what he looked at, such as vaccine data influencing the trajectory of the crisis, have come to pass. But there are still unknowns, including how long-haulers might be faring one year into the pandemic.
The seemingly inevitable happened: President Trump announced that he had tested positive for Covid-19, months after downplaying the pandemic, failing to regularly wear a mask, and promoting unproven treatments for the infection. A day later, it became clear that the Rose Garden event announcing the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the U.S. Supreme Court — with few masks and plenty of close contact — was likely a superspreader event. More than 50 cases were ultimately tied to that event.
The election of Joe Biden, who emphasized listening to scientists throughout his campaign, to the presidency may give the U.S. an opportunity to change the course of its pandemic response. Soon after the election was called, Biden announced a coronavirus task force, with public health experts, physicians, and those with prior government experience. Since then, Biden has also announced his intention to institute a mask mandate for his first 100 days in office and to have 50 million people in the U.S. vaccinated by that time.
Ahead of meetings to discuss emergency use of Covid-19 vaccines, STAT’s Helen Branswell wrote about how, now that science has presented the world with the unprecedented opportunity to beat back a virus in record time, we ought to go about using it well. Experts emphasized overcoming vaccine distrust — something that’s still in progress — as well as making sure to vaccinate pregnant people — something that right now is advised to be up to discretion of pregnant and lactating individuals and their providers.
Less than a year after Covid-19 was identified as a global threat, the FDA gave emergency use authorization to the first vaccine against the disease, made by Pfizer and BioNTech. This was followed a week later by a second emergency authorization for Moderna’s Covid-19 vaccine. Since then, public health agencies have outlined priority groups for a vaccination rollout, beginning with health care workers and long term care facility residents, followed by older adults, those with high-risk medical conditions, and other essential workers.