Exactly one year ago today, the deadly coronavirus made its first appearance on Task & Purpose.
On Jan. 23, 2020, Jared Keller wrote about the Air Force issuing a ‘public health alert’ for a ‘Chinese coronavirus’ that had spread to Japan. Keller reported on a recent Facebook post from the service’s 374th Medical Group warning of a “deadly coronavirus that originated in Wuhan, China.”
The alert advised people who had traveled to Wuhan or felt ill to stay at home, wear a mask, and wash their hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended the same thing for the next year, in addition to staying at least six feet away from others.
By that point in January, Keller noted the virus had killed 18 people. There was only one case reported in the United States, though more than a dozen people in Seattle, Washington were put under observation for symptoms.
Meanwhile, Chinese authorities began early efforts of isolating Wuhan from the outside world and implementing strict “wartime measures” of segregating homes and conducting surveillance on neighbors in an effort to curb the virus’ spread.
Their efforts failed.
A World Health Organization situation report issued at the end of January said there were 82 cases reported in 18 countries outside China, where the majority of the virus was spreading. And despite President Donald Trump’s assurance on Jan. 30 the virus was “well under control” and his subsequent issuance of a ban on travelers from China, the virus moved rapidly across the United States.
By the end of March, the United States edged out China and Italy as the new epicenter of the outbreak (though China covered up its missteps and was untruthful in its official tallies). Our COVID-19 tracker on March 27 reported 94,000 confirmed cases in the U.S. and 1,428 deaths. There were 613 cases and two deaths in the military then.
Cases continued to rise in the ranks: The Pentagon reported more than 1,200 cases and four deaths on March 31. A letter from a Navy aircraft carrier captain named Brett Crozier was leaked to reporters that set off a firestorm of controversy over the service’s handling of the virus. Crozier was fired, and then, the acting Navy Secretary. The U.S. military was mobilized to fight the virus, deploying National Guardsman to hot spots and shipping equipment to hospitals in need. Meanwhile, military officials were preparing to operate in a “globally-persistent” COVID-19 environment without an effective vaccine until the summer of 2021.
It’s been a year since we published that first article on the crisis that has reshaped everyone’s life. Today, the total case count for the United States stands at more than 24 million, with more than 1.3 million new cases reported in the past week. More than 200,000 Department of Defense personnel have contracted the virus. Two hundred and twenty-five of them are among the more than 400,000 Americans who have lost their lives.
We collectively mourn this staggering loss of lives, now greater than the number of Americans killed in four years of bloody conflict in Europe and the Pacific during World War II.
Still, there are encouraging signs in the data, which show the rates of cases, hospitalizations, and deaths easing, and in some cases, declining. Several vaccines on the market are currently being rolled out. And newly-confirmed defense secretary Lloyd Austin has made clear the military will continue to play a prominent role in the response.
So what will be the story a year from now? No one knows for sure. But we hope it is one celebrating the end of this horrible virus and a return to normalcy. We hope.