COVID-19 has spread quickly around the world, causing more than 249,000 deaths and infecting more than 3.5 million people as of May 4, 2020, according to Johns Hopkins' Coronavirus Resource Center. It’s already hard to remember life before COVID-19—but it was less than five months ago when a doctor in China sounded the alarm about a new respiratory virus. Since then, cases have been confirmed in nearly every country and on every continent except Antarctica. The United States today has the most COVID-19 cases in the world.
The story of how COVID-19 spread so far and so fast is a story of government secrecy, delayed action, and a highly contagious disease we haven’t seen before. To better understand what has happened and what might follow, Stacker constructed a timeline of the COVID-19 pandemic from its first mention by Dr. Li Wenliang in Wuhan, China. The situation changes daily, but what is clear is that this virus is still spreading and that the surest way to flatten the curve is to keep people apart through social distancing.
Our timeline includes information from a range of sources including news outlets such as the New York Times and CNN, science articles, and releases from the World Health Organization (WHO). Keep reading for more information about the COVID-19 pandemic and a better understanding of how a highly contagious virus became a global health crisis.
Li Wenliang, a doctor working at Wuhan Central Hospital in Wuhan, China, sent out a text to a group of other doctors warning them to protect themselves against a new respiratory virus. Four days later, police summoned him and told him to sign a letter accusing him of false comments and disturbing the social order. Li died of the virus on Feb. 7.
In the meantime, the government of Wuhan did in fact confirm that its health authorities were treating dozens of cases of pneumonia from an unknown origin. Several of the infected people worked at Wuhan’s Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market. Wuhan is a city of 11 million people in China’s Hubei province and had become the start and center of a new epidemic.
The WHO announced on Jan. 4 it would start actively tracking a mysterious group of pneumonia cases in Wuhan, China. The organization's China office was first notified of the illnesses Dec. 31, 2019. By Jan. 5, the WHO issued its first publication on those cases. reporting on the status of patients and the response of public health officials.
The first known death from the virus was reported by the Chinese state media. The victim was a 61-year-old man who was a regular customer at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market and had underlying issues including “abdominal tumors and chronic liver disease.”
The first case outside of China was confirmed Jan. 13 in Thailand. Within the week, cases were found in Japan, South Korea, and—on Jan. 20—the United States. The first American case was in Washington State where a man in his 30s developed symptoms after a trip to Wuhan.
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By Jan. 30, 9,800 people had been infected and 213 died around the world; the WHO declared the 2019-nCoV outbreak a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern.” The next day, the administration of President Donald Trump suspended entry into the United States for anyone who had traveled to China in the past 14 days who wasn’t an American citizen, family of an American citizen, or a permanent resident.
The WHO gave the disease caused by the novel coronavirus a new name: COVID-19. It was was chosen because it did not refer to a geographical area, animal, or group of people and because it was relatively easy to pronounce. The WHO wanted to “guard against the use of other names that might be inaccurate or stigmatizing.”
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By Feb. 23, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Italy had grown from five to more than 150. The Lombardy region in the north of the country was the hardest hit, and officials locked down 10 towns in the area, closing schools and canceling events.
A 61-year-old man from São Paulo, Brazil, who had recently returned from Italy tested positive for COVID-19. Meanwhile, more and more cases were reported in Europe. Two days later, other countries with reported infections were Belarus, England, Estonia, Germany, Lithuania, Northern Ireland, Switzerland, and Wales.
By Feb. 28, there were more and more cases reported in Europe. At this time, 800 patients had been confirmed infected in Italy, and cases in 14 other countries could be traced back to Italy as well. On the same day, the United States confirmed its first COVID-19 death in Seattle.
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By March 7, COVID-19 had killed nearly 3,500 people and infected 102,000 in more than 90 countries. Iran became one of the worst situations totaling 4,747 cases and 124 deaths.
In response to the quick spread of COVID-19, the WHO declares the outbreak to be a global pandemic. In a briefing, WHO director-general said, “We have never before seen a pandemic sparked by a coronavirus.”
As the epicenter of the virus shifted from China to Europe, President Trump made an announcement saying he would block all travelers from European countries except Britain for 30 days. He walked the statement back a few hours later, saying that this would not apply to U.S. citizens, residents, or their spouses, but not before many travelers had spent thousands on tickets to return home.
In response to the virus’ quick spread, some Western European countries began to shut down nonessential businesses. In Spain, which had the second-highest death rate in Europe after Italy, residents could only leave home to buy essential supplies or to work. In France, cafes, restaurants, bars, shops, and cinemas were closed.
China reported no new local infections, a signal that China’s epidemic could be winding down. However, although no new local infections were recorded, there were 34 new infections confirmed among patients who had traveled to China from elsewhere. On the same day, Italy overtook China as the country with the most deaths worldwide.
Confirmed deaths from COVID-19 exceeded 10,000 worldwide. Cases began to rise exponentially, for example, from 2,958 to 13,957 overnight in Germany. China had a second day with no new domestic cases reported.
While the United Kingdom had initially considered a “herd immunity” approach to COVID-19, the country eventually decided to follow the lead of the rest of Europe and close all non-essential stores, ban meetings of more than two people, and require people to stay at home except to buy food or medicine.
It was announced that the Tokyo Summer Olympics would be postponed for one year in response to COVID-19. This was the first time Olympic games have been canceled since World War II. Only three games have been canceled since the beginning of the Olympics, all due to wars.
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After negotiations, the White House and Congress came to an agreement on a $2 trillion aid plan to help businesses, workers, and the health care system. The plan passed the Senate in a unanimous 96–0 vote.
It was reported that a record 3.3 million people in the United States filed for unemployment the previous week. This was a rise of more than 3 million from the previous week, which saw unemployment claims by just 281,000 people. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said unemployment could reach 20% due to COVID-19.
Over 500,000 cases of COVID-19 were confirmed around the world. In Europe, the number of cases exceeded 250,000, more than half of which were in Italy and Spain. Italy’s death toll reached 8,215.
In response to the country’s rapidly growing numbers, the local governments of the United States put roughly half the population under some kind of lockdown. Twenty-three states issued stay-at-home orders and 10 other states and territories ordered nonessential businesses to close.
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The number of global COVID-19 cases doubled over a week and surpassed the 1 million mark. The United States alone contains over 20% of these cases, and the disease had now claimed the lives of more than 50,000 people around the world.
A tiger at New York’s Bronx Zoo tested positive for the coronavirus after being exposed to a zookeeper who wasn’t showing any symptoms. Nadia, a 4-year-old Malayan tiger, is the first animal in the United States to test positive for the virus, and the first coronavirus case found in a tiger.
[Pictured: A Malayan tiger in the Bronx Zoo.]
Less than two weeks after the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases surpassed 1 million around the world, the global case count eclipsed 2 million. The United States continues to have the most coronavirus cases, with more than 600,000 confirmed, and over 25,000 Americans have died as a result of the pandemic.
Trump announced that he will halt U.S. funding for the WHO until a review into its handling of the coronavirus is complete. The president said he believes the WHO was slow to respond to the initial outbreak of the virus in China and this is what led to a global pandemic. The U.S. is currently the WHO’s largest donor, pledging nearly $900 million in the past two years.
Nearly three weeks after the White House approved the coronavirus stimulus bill, eligible U.S. residents began receiving their $1,200 stimulus check payments. This follows on the heels of increased unemployment benefits, another aspect of the relief package, which started going out to Americans as early as last week.
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Two months after the first coronavirus cases were found in a Seattle home, The New York Times revealed that at least 7,000 people have died in nursing or long-care homes, accounting for one-fifth of the virus’ death toll in America. Due to scarce resources and overcrowded facilities, many Americans most susceptible to catching the disease are not receiving the proper health care and support that they need.
Trump announced on Twitter that he is finalizing an executive order to temporarily prevent new immigrants from coming to the United States while the U.S. economy struggles to recover during the pandemic. The 60-day ban targets people who are coming to the United States to seek permanent resident status and will not affect those who are coming to the country temporarily or have a work visa.
With most states being on lockdown for weeks, residents in over a dozen states are taking to the streets to express their disapproval of the continuous stay-at-home orders. Protestors had different reasons behind their frustrations, but many were citing the negative economic consequences that closing most businesses is leading to. Others are tired of having their movement restricted by the government and public health officials.
Georgia’s governor, Brian Kemp, has decided to start reopening the state as early as the end of April, with some essential businesses reopening April 24 and dine-in restaurants reopening on April 27. Georgia joins fellow Southern states Florida and South Carolina, who relaxed their stay-at-home orders and started reopening their public beaches. Other states, such as Tennessee, Ohio, and Colorado, are not planning to prolong their stay-at-home orders past the end of April.
The latest bill aimed at combating the effects of the coronavirus is making its way through Congress.Most of the funds from the $484 billion bill are going toward the Paycheck Protection Program, which provides loans for small businesses so they can keep paying their workers. Additional funding is going toward hospitals and coronavirus testing, as well as providing loans for farms and ranches.
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Clothing and accessories company J. Crew, founded in 1957, on May 4 announced it had filed for bankruptcy. It was the first major retailer to do so but other big-name retail chains including J.C. Penney and Neiman Marcus, have enacted significant layoffs in recent months as uncertainty grows around how the pandemic will alter the retail landscape.