How We Got to 55 Million Cases of Coronavirus: A Timeline

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Misha Friedman/Contributor/Getty Images News/Getty Images North America

Pandemic in Review

It may seem hard to believe, but the planet has been battling the COVID-19 pandemic for a year. Official sources such as the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say the first cases of the disease, which is caused by a member of the coronavirus family, were detected in December, though some more recent reports indicate a case may have been discovered as early as November 2019. As we approach the one-year mark of this deadly outbreak, which has upended and altered life around the globe, here’s a look back at the past 12 months.


Wuhan medical worker
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December 2019: First Case

The first human case of COVID-19 traces back to Wuhan, China, the sprawling, commercial capital of Central China’s Hubei province, according to the World Health Organization. (The medical journal Lancet says the first case is Dec. 1.) Some of the earliest cases have been linked to a traditional “wet market” where wild animals are sold as food. Scientists believe the virus originated in a bat, then made the leap to an animal known as a pangolin, which is still eaten in Asian cultures despite its endangered status.

Related: Pandemic Phrases That Have Infected Our Vocabulary

Daily Life In Wuhan During Lockdown
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Jan. 1: Epicenter Shutdown

It takes about a month before China officially shuts down the market suspected as being at the center of the outbreak. A notice is posted outside the Huanan Seafood Market that “according to regulations for public health emergencies, the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission's Hanjiang district bureau decided to suspend the seafood market's operation to improve its environment and sanitation.”

The World Health Organization

Jan. 3: World Health Organization Notification

Two days later, China formally notifies WHO of the public health emergency taking shape and begins updating the United States about the outbreak.

Japan Imposes Nationwide State Of Emergency To Contain Coronavirus Pandemic
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Jan. 13-16: Arrival in Thailand and Japan

Thailand reports its first case of COVID-19 just 10 days later — a 61-year old Chinese woman from Wuhan. After developing a fever with chills and a sore throat, the woman took a direct flight to Thailand from Wuhan City, according to WHO. Though the woman had a history of shopping at wet markets, she had not specifically shopped at the Huanan Seafood Market. Japan soon reports its first case as well, a man in his mid-30s.

The workers are doing the sterilization and disinfection for the coming college entrance examination in Wuhan, Hubei,China
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Jan. 20: China’s Declaration

With four deaths reported, China labels the new coronavirus a Class B infectious disease that’s serious or permanent in nature, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. At around the same time, South Korea confirms its first case of the disease.

Washington State Resident Confirmed As First US Case Of Wuhan Coronavirus
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Jan. 21: U.S. Arrival

The COVID-19 diagnosis of a Washington state man who’d traveled to the Wuhan area marks the beginning of a U.S. struggle with the disease just as Hong Kong and Taiwan announce their first cases. The disease continues to spread in mainland China, popping up in Beijing, Shenzhen, and Shanghai. Officials from WHO meet Jan. 22-23 but decide not to declare the outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.

Canadian Health Officials Give Update On New Case Coronavirus In Toronto
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Late January: Global Spread

The disease spreads rapidly in the days after the WHO decision. On Jan. 24 alone, 830 cases are confirmed in mainland China, and 25 deaths; Nepal, Vietnam, France, and Malaysia report their first cases; and the United States confirms its second case, a 60-year-old woman in Chicago. By Jan. 25, cases began appearing in Australia and Canada, and the United States confirms its third case.

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Jan. 26: Wild Animal Trade Ban

China decides to ban wild animal trade within its borders, including in markets and online, after WHO determines that the new coronavirus is a zoonotic disease, meaning it originates from an animal, as did diseases including SARS, Ebola, and bird flu. The custom of selling wild animals for consumption (including endangered animals) is prevalent throughout Southeast Asia and Africa dating back at least centuries, despite its effects on human health and wildlife.

Related: Places Nature Reclaimed When Humans Retreated During the Lockdown

Wuhan Evacuation Flight Arrives In Auckland Following Coronavirus Outbreak
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Jan. 29: Evacuation From Wuhan

As case numbers rise, the United States and Japan decide to evacuate their citizens from Wuhan, and United Airlines suspends all flights to China from the United States. The next day, several airlines in North America, Europe, and Asia follow suit. A slew of other countries confirm their first cases as January draws to a close, including Finland, the United Arab Emirates, Germany, Sri Lanka, and Cambodia. The world begins to step up its response to the broadening emergency.

Related: This U.S. Airline Has Cut 76% of Its Routes Because of the Coronavirus

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Jan. 30: Borders Close

WHO finally declares the coronavirus outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern requiring a coordinated response. At the same time, Russia closes its border with China and the United States issues a Level 4 (“Do not travel”) travel advisory for China.

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Early February: Emergency Use of Diagnostic Tests

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration issues an emergency use authorization for a CDC diagnostic test capable of identifying COVID-19. President Donald Trump, in his State of the Union address, pledges to safeguard Americans from the disease. Around the same time, a handful of countries begin banning foreign nationals, including from Taiwan, who had been to China in the past 14 days; the U.K. and France advise their citizens against all but essential travel to mainland China.

Wuhan Jinyintan Hospital
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Feb. 6: First Death of an American

A 60-year-old American citizen in Wuhan dies from COVID-19, becoming the first officially linked American fatality. Though about 800 Americans and their family had been evacuated, the man had remained behind for unknown reasons. 

A portrait of Dr. Li Wenliang is left at Li's hospital in Wuhan
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President Trump Holds Press Conference With CDC Officials On Coronavirus
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Feb. 25: America Warned

U.S. officials issue a formal warning about COVID-19, with the CDC saying people should prepare for its likely spread, and U.S. senators returning to Washington after a weeklong recess are scheduled to get a classified briefing on the Trump administration’s planned response to the virus. Trump names Vice President Mike Pence to lead the nation’s response.

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Feb. 29: First Death Within U.S. Borders

Just as the nation mobilizes, a Washington state resident in his 50s with an underlying health condition dies of the disease. The state declares a public emergency.

New York Gov. Cuomo Opens Coronavirus Testing Area In New Rochelle Park
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Early March: Widening Emergency

A wave of the coronavirus arrives in the United States. In the earliest days of the month, the U.S. reports its second COVID-19 death and Florida, California, New York, and Rhode Island declare states of emergency. The disease arrives in Kentucky, Oklahoma, Kansas, Washington, D.C., Iowa, Louisiana, and Connecticut, and by March 10, about 23 states declare as well. New Jersey and South Dakota report their first COVID-19 deaths. On the presidential level, Trump opts to skip a coronavirus briefing; Pence leads the meeting instead.

Lockdown and Shutdown
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Mid-March: Life Unravels

With public emergencies and bans on public gatherings declared in more than two dozen states, cultural and sporting events are shuttered. The Coachella music festival announces March 10 it would be postponed until at least October; the next day — as the United States suspends entry to all foreign nationals traveling from China, Iran, and certain European countries — the NBA suspends its season. The CDC joins the chorus, urging people across the United States to cancel or postpone events of 50 or more attendees for at least eight weeks. On March 12, Ohio announces public schools are closing until at least April 3, followed by 16 additional states, and Massachusetts leads a wave of restaurant and public dining crackdowns, with eating and drinking at bars ended until at least April 17.

Related: Iconic Activities Canceled by COVID-19 in Every State

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March 13: A National Emergency

Trump declares a state of National Emergency under the Stafford Act. “Only the federal government can provide the necessary coordination to address a pandemic of this national size,” says a proclamation in his name. “It is the preeminent responsibility of the federal government to take action to stem a nationwide pandemic.”

Wisconsin Faces Major Surge In COVID-19 Pandemic
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March 14: Crisis Deepens

The United States records 2,750 COVID-19 cases. With the exception of West Virginia, the disease has reached every state in the country; Georgia postpones its Democratic primary out of safety concerns.

Related:Is Your State Doing Enough to Combat the Coronavirus?

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American Airlines
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House Speaker Pelosi Makes A Statement On Families First Coronavirus Response Act
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March 18: Coronavirus Relief

In an attempt to help prop up the floundering U.S. economy and help the millions of Americans out of work, Trump signs the Families First Coronavirus Response Act — the only relief the U.S. government has provided after the Republican-led U.S. Senate focused on appointing a Supreme Court nominee, then adjourned without taking up another relief bill. Trump invokes the Defense Production Act on March 20 to allow the administration to force manufacturers to make medical supplies in short supply.

Related: These States Made History With Record Unemployment Amid the Pandemic

New York Continues To Struggle With Coronavirus Spread As Parts Of U.S. Look To Reopen
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 Trucks used as temporary morgues are seen outside the New York City Chief Medical Examiner's office
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March 26: New York City Epicenter

New York has dominated the news for much of the coronavirus crisis — largely because at this moment in spring the city is labeled the epicenter of the U.S. outbreak, with reported cases doubling every three days at one point. By April 10, New York City was reported as having more COVID-19 cases than any country: 159,937 cases. The runner-ups were Spain, with 153,000 cases at the time, and Italy at 143,000.


April 4: Trump Suggests Hydroxychloroquine

Trump, ignoring expert opinion, endorses the use of the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine to treat the coronavirus. It’s later deemed ineffective against the coronavirus, by which time Trump has mused about how to get light inside the body and recommended disinfectants as an injection — though he later claimed he was being sarcastic. Lysol and other companies rush to warn against such attempts.

Related: This Is the Only Disinfectant Proven to Kill the Coronavirus

Abbott announces the reopening of more Texas businesses
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April: Trump Seeks to Reopen America

With the situation worsening by the day, Trump rolls out guidelines for reopening the country that leave it to governors to choose to lift restrictions statewide or county by county. Texas Gov. Greg Abbot soon announces a reopening for May, though by April 28 the United States has reached the grim milestone of 1 million reported cases.

Related: My 'Coronavirus Rhapsody' Parody Went Viral

9 year old boy having temperature taken, during covid-19 test
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May: Children Die From Related Issue

It had been widely believed that children were less susceptible to COVID-19, but the theory is seemingly shattered when three young children die in New York of a mysterious, toxic-shock inflammation syndrome linked to the coronavirus. An additional 73 children are identified as also infected by the syndrome.

beach reopening
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June: Reopenings

As summer arrives, countries around the globe unwind lockdowns, from France reopening beaches, cultural, and sporting centers to Italy allowing in tourists and Jordan unlocking mosques. In the United States, even New York City begins a reopening. It’s estimated that lockdown measures prevented about 500 million COVID-19 related deaths. Yet the WHO points out that the pandemic is far from over and in fact, some places are still hitting record highs in cases. In the United States, by June 11, confirmed cases exceeded 2 million.

Related: Are People In Your State Staying Home?

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July: Face Mask Wars

States continue to announce mask mandates to help slow the spread of the virus, including Texas on July 1 and Louisiana on July 11, but the face coverings remain controversial and divisive — to the point of gunfights and other violence — as some say wearing them restricts their freedom and civil liberties. Medical officials say masks are one of the most effective ways to stop the spread of COVID-19.

Related: Masks and Accessories to Make Covering Your Face More Comfortable

Open sign in a small business shop after Covid-19 pandemic
New York reopening
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Fall: Short-Lived Sense of Normalcy

COVID-19 cases begin spiking again in late summer, as experts predicted, and in New York, positivity rates hit 1.5% on Sept. 28, then rise to 3.3 % the next day, the highest since June. By Oct. 1, the rate in Queens and Brooklyn is up to 6.5%, a reflection of what is taking place nationally.

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Oct. 2: COVID-19 at the White House

After months of downplaying the virus and not wearing masks, it was not altogether surprising when it is revealed Trump and first lady Melania Trump have tested positive for COVID-19 — just a day after adviser Hope Hicks. Trump is treated at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and returned to the White House after three days, but the disease continues to spread through his staff, with Stephen Miller next testing positive Oct. 8. More than 130 Secret Service agents are afflicted too.

Related: President Trump and Other COVID-19 Skeptics Who Contracted the Virus

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El Paso Striken With Serious Surge Of Coronavirus Cases
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Now: Toll of Death and Illness

Cases in the United States and globally are rising precipitously. WHO’s coronavirus disease dashboard reported that as of Nov. 18 there are 55.3 million cases worldwide, including 1.3 million deaths. In the United States, to date, there have been 11 million confirmed cases, putting us millions ahead of other countries around the world. At a distant second is India with 8.9 million confirmed cases, followed by Brazil with 5.8 million cases.

Related: Pandemic Relief Resources You Need to Know About Right Now