Covid 19

Two years later: WAMC looks back at the COVID-19 pandemic

We’re marking the second anniversary of the World Health Organization declaring COVID-19 a pandemic. WAMC takes a look back at our coverage of the quick and deadly spread of the disease and the scramble to respond.

It was mid-December 2019 when people in Wuhan, China first began to experience shortness of breath and fever. A few weeks later, the World Health Organization activated its incident management system in response to the increase in cases of the unknown pneumonia virus. By January 20th, 2020, the United States had its first confirmed case of COVID-19.

Life went on as normal for the next several weeks. But on March 2nd, New York had its first confirmed case of COVID-19. Then-Governor Andrew Cuomo held a briefing in New York City in response.

“It is deep breath time. This first of all, this is not our first rodeo with this type of situation in New York. 1968, we had the Hong Kong flu. 2009, we had the Swine Flu, where we actually closed like 100 schools in New York State,” the Democrat said. “Avian Flu, Ebola, SARS, MERS, Measles, right? So, we have gone through this before. When you look at the reality here, about 80 percent of the people who are infected with the coronavirus, self-resolve. They have symptoms, the symptoms are similar to what you would have with a normal flu, and for most people, they treat themselves over 80 percent and the virus resolves that way.”

Of course, it would soon become clear COVID-19 was nothing like the United States had seen before. Cases skyrocketed and New Rochelle in Westchester County became the national epicenter. In early March, Cuomo implemented a containment zone with a one-mile radius around the city. WAMC spoke with County Executive George Latimer on March 12th.

“We’re in uncharted territory,” Latimer said. “There’s no roadmap that tells us do this do that. We haven’t seen anything like this in our adult lifetime. And, of course, people who have questions or concerns, they’re on social media, they’re jumping miles ahead of where we are. So, we find that we have to do everything we can think of, just to you know, try to be responsive.”

Cuomo, a fellow Democrat, began holding daily briefings and his national profile grew. Critics of President Trump’s response welcomed Cuomo’s focused approach to the pandemic. Cuomo wound up winning an Emmy award for his daily briefings and received a $5.1 million book deal about his COVID response – a deal that came under scrutiny in the scandals that led to his resignation.

In addition to the horrific death toll, the lasting memory of the pandemic for many will be the shutdown of society.

Schools, public buildings and restaurants closed in an attempt to slow the spread of the virus. Many avoided leaving home whenever possible. And while mask mandates would follow, WAMC’s Dave Lucas found mask-wearing rare in March 2020.

Incidents stemming from the fear generated by the pandemic also grew. In Vermont, COVID-19 cases were relatively few at the same time New York saw its initial peak. In April, Vermont was seeing about 70 new cases per day – in comparison New York was seeing about 5,000 new cases daily. WAMC’s Pat Bradley reported on a May incident tied to the Vermont-New York border.

When the pandemic first hit, many states temporarily closed schools, hoping they would be able to reopen them weeks or months later, but most stuck to Zoom for the rest of the year.

Teachers and parents were forced to switch quickly to remote learning – a move that was difficult on both teachers and parents, who had to stay home with children, balancing remote work and school instruction.

Pittsfield Superintendent of Schools Jake McCandless spoke with in April 2020 about the transition.

“Remote learning in a community that says diverse as a place like Pittsfield is, is really a unique challenge compared to some communities that are that are more homogenous,” McCandless said. “We have a wide range of families in terms of internet connectivity devices at home, we have a wide range of people with personal beliefs about how much screen time kids should have, whether it’s educational, or for fun.”

Massachusetts with its larger population had about 2,000 new COVID cases daily that spring. One of the deadliest outbreaks of the coronavirus was at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, a state-run nursing home for veterans. More than 70 veterans died from the virus at the facility. The mismanagement of the nursing home ultimately led to investigations by the U.S. Attorney’s Office and state Attorney General’s Office. Then-U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling spoke with WAMC in April 2020.

“If they are true, you have a situation where there were two serious problems. These are the first things we will look into,” Lelling said. “One: that the facility ignored, what was by that point, well-known protocols for dealing with COVID-19 exposure in a closed setting. And two: that the facility covered that up vis-à-vis the state health authorities (who) delayed discovery of the extent of the problem. Neither of these things is proven.”

Criminal charges were dismissed last November. Prosecutors are appealing the decision.

In New York, cases began to slowly drop in April and there was a sense, not for the last time, that the worst was over. Cuomo marked the last of his daily briefings in June. But as the panic subsided, more details of his handling of COVID emerged.

By the fall of 2020, the U.S. Department of Justice had opened a probe into the state’s nursing home policies during the height of the pandemic. WAMC’s Capitol Correspondent Karen DeWitt reported on the controversy.

Cuomo and his administration denied wrongdoing.

New York State Attorney General Letitia James would also open an investigation into whether Cuomo tried to hide the true number of nursing home deaths. That was before the investigation into claims by 11 women who say Cuomo sexually harassed them.

Soon there was rare good news on the COVID front: approval of the first vaccine. New York and many other states turned their attention to urging as many people as possible to get the vaccine, including issuing mandates for certain employees – a debate that still continues today.

By August 2021 Cuomo’s shine from his COVID-19 pandemic response had faded and he resigned under pressure – leaving Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul to step in just before the Omicron variant led to the latest round of restrictions.

“I’m not here to say we’re out of it,” Hochul said. “We’re addressing a very serious situation.”

Two years on, new COVID cases have once again dropped and mask mandates are ending. Many lives and businesses have returned to as normal as it can get in post-pandemic times. Only time will tell if there’s a future COVID outbreak – or if this will be the last pandemic anniversary that occurs during an ongoing public health emergency.

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