AP Was There: The surreal, first day of the pandemic

Posted 3/11/22

On the day the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a pandemic, Koloud “Kay” Tarapolsi reflected the views of many people when she told an Associated Press reporter: “If we avoid …

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AP Was There: The surreal, first day of the pandemic


On the day the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a pandemic, Koloud “Kay” Tarapolsi reflected the views of many people when she told an Associated Press reporter: “If we avoid each other and listen to the scientists, maybe in a few weeks it will be better.”

If only she knew.

News coverage of the first day of the pandemic, March 11, 2020, is a fascinating look-back in time at a world experiencing combination of denial and panic about a virus that was still a mystery to many.

People were stunned at the idea that schools and sporting events were being shuttered, developments that became the norm over the next two years. Stock markets plummeted, President Donald Trump addressed a jittery nation to announce travel restrictions. Tom Hanks was infected with the virus,

But many people, like Tarapolsi, thought it would be over soon.

“I was like ’Omigod, that poor girl,” Tarapolsi said through laughter after re-reading the AP story from that day. “I’m sad for the optimist that I was, you know, just thinking life would get back together and I was just so optimistic about that.”

It didn't take long for the virus to hit home for the Redmond, Washington, woman, however.

A few days later, she learned a nursing home not far from her was the epicenter of a coronavirus outbreak. Later that month, she drove through downtown Seattle and was shocked to see it more of a “ghost town.”

“I just thought we were led to believe it was just a little tiny thing. And it really just kind of stopped the world on its head,” she said.

Her job as a library storyteller and teacher of her Arabic culture were suddenly impossible to do. So was a three-month artist residency in Morocco during the last half of 2020. Her kids' school was upended, but like many in the pandemic, she had time to pursue a new passion and wrote a children's book.

“I just wish we would have taken it more seriously," she said of the early days of the pandemic.

Below are two AP stories from March 11, 2020 that chronicle the start of the pandemic, giving a glimpse into a world coming to grips with a new public health emergency:

Americans snap to attention on virus as big events canceled

A basketball tournament, with no fans. A St. Patrick’s Day, with no parades. College campuses, with no students. Corporate headquarters, with barren cubicles.

The nation snapped to attention on Wednesday as the new coronavirus was declared a pandemic, stocks slid into bear market territory and the American public finally began to come to grips with the outbreak. President Donald Trump held a rare prime-time address from the Oval Office to calm the public.

Health and government officials have been sounding the alarm about the virus for nearly two months as it infected and killed thousands of people, pinballing from China to Iran to Italy and beyond before striking Seattle in the first deadly outbreak in the U.S.

But Wednesday was the moment that the larger American public came to the dawning realization that the toll of the virus would be unavoidable for months to come, perhaps longer.

In the matter of hours Wednesday afternoon, the signs were everywhere. The NCAA announced that the rite of spring for so many Americans — its college basketball tournament — would be played before largely empty arenas. Around the same time, the White House scheduled a nationally televised address. News feeds lit up with cancellations of St. Patrick’s Day parades, major university systems in California, New York and elsewhere ending classes for the term and late night comedians making plans to film without live studio audiences.

CBS Evening News anchor Norah O’Donnell solemnly declared during Wednesday evening’s broadcast that two employees of the network had tested positive and those who worked closely with them had been asked to self-quarantine.

Later in the day, Hollywood icon Tom Hanks announced that he and his wife had tested positive for the virus. Just as the Hanks news was bouncing around the internet and on people’s phones, the NBA said it was suspending its season until further notice.

In his prime-time address, Trump declared that he is sharply restricting passenger travel from 26 European nations to the U.S. beginning late Friday, at midnight. Trump said the month-long restrictions won’t apply to the United Kingdom, and there would be exemptions for “Americans who have undergone appropriate screenings.” He said the U.S. would monitor the situation to determine if travel could be reopened earlier.

“We are all in this together,” Trump said.

The Oval Office address was an abrupt shift in tone from a president who has repeatedly sought to downplay the severity of the threat, telling people: “It will go away, just stay calm.”

Many Americans shared a similar mindset in recent weeks, but the events of Wednesday changed the mood.

Koloud “Kay” Tarapolsi of the Seattle suburb of Redmond learned that two of her children will have to be kept home from school because their district closed for two weeks starting Thursday. Their Girl Scout activities including cookie-selling have already been curtailed.

“We’re adjusting,” she said. “If we avoid each other and listen to the scientists, maybe in a few weeks it will be better.”

Officials in some American cities, including the hot spots of Seattle and the San Francisco Bay Area, banned large gatherings of people, while celebrations including Chicago’s St. Patrick’s Day parade were canceled.

The World Health Organization called the crisis a pandemic, a step it had previously resisted. Stocks plunged, with the S&P 500 on the cusp of falling into bear territory at nearly 20% lower than the record set just last month.

In Washington state, after Gov. Jay Inslee announced a ban on events of more than 250 people in the greater Seattle area, the Seattle Public School system said it would close for at least two weeks for its 53,000 students. COVID-19 has killed more than two dozen in the Seattle area.

Seattle Public Schools Superintendent Denise Juneau called it “an unprecedented situation.”

As of Wednesday evening, 38 people had died in the U.S., while more than 1,300 people had tested positive for the new coronavirus.

That’s far less than the toll in other parts of the globe: In Italy, where more than 12,000 people had tested positive and 800 people have died, the situation was so dire that all stores except pharmacies and food markets were ordered closed.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.

The vast majority of people recover from the new virus. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover. In mainland China, where the virus first exploded, more than 80,000 people have been diagnosed and more than 60,000 have so far recovered.

Meanwhile, from UCLA to the University of Vermont, the number of colleges and universities canceling in-person classes and moving the rest of the semester online mounted.

In New York City, there have only been a few dozen people diagnosed with COVID-19, but the virus is still all that anyone was talking about.

Subway trains, usually jam-packed at rush hour, were unusually uncrowded Wednesday. City transportation officials reported that the number of people cycling to work in Manhattan over the East River bridges has soared 55% over the past few days as people have heeded the mayor’s suggestion to avoid public transportation during peak hours.

Some grocery stores across the city, which ran out of hand sanitizer days ago, have seen shelves empty of other items, like bottled water. Public places have seemed a little less teeming, though tourist hubs like Times Square are still attracting plenty of people.

Late night comedians made plans to start filming without live audiences. NBC’s “Late Night With Seth Myers” tweeted it was following guidance by New York City officials.

“We hope to do our part to help to decrease the rate of transmission in our communities,” it wrote.

Even email boxes were papered with references to the new virus, as employers wrote to workers outlining new work-from-home procedures, and businesses sent emails to customers with subject lines like “Coronavirus update.”

Holly Wagner, 20, a sophomore at New York University, said she had been planning on visiting Washington, D.C., over spring break, but now is worried the campus will shut entirely while she’s gone, leaving her unable to retrieve belongings.

“I’m worried the situation is going to escalate and they’re going to say, ‘don’t come back to the dorms,’” she said.

Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo asked residents not to organize or attend gatherings of more than 250 people, but stopped short of an outright ban. Still, at an afternoon news conference, she pleaded for people sick even with just aches and pains to stay home.

“We understand that people have to live their lives and and business has to continue,” she said. “However, we only have one chance to contain this.”


WHO declares coronavirus a pandemic, urges aggressive action

GENEVA (AP) — The World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a pandemic and urged aggressive action from all countries to fight it, as U.S. stocks plunged into bear market territory and several American cities joined global counterparts in banning large gatherings.

By using the charged word “pandemic” after shying away from calling it so earlier, the U.N. health agency sought to shock lethargic countries into pulling out all the stops.

“We have called every day for countries to take urgent and aggressive action. We have rung the alarm bell loud and clear,” WHO’s chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Wednesday.

“All countries can still change the course of this pandemic. If countries detect, test, treat, isolate, trace and mobilize their people in the response,” he said. “We are deeply concerned by the alarming levels of spread and severity and by the alarming levels of inaction.”

After downplaying the threat of the virus for days, President Donald Trump announced in an Oval Office address he is sharply restricting European passenger travel to the U.S. and moving to ease the pandemic’s economic costs.

The NBA became the first major American sports league to suspend play, which raised questions about college basketball’s championships, which for now will be played without fans attending. In Italy, soccer club Juventus said defender Daniele Rugani tested positive.

Iran and Italy are the new front lines of the fight against the virus that started in China, the WHO said.

“They’re suffering but I guarantee you other countries will be in that situation soon,” said Dr. Mike Ryan, the WHO’s emergencies chief.

For the global economy, virus repercussions were profound, with increasing concerns of wealth- and job-wrecking recessions. U.S. stocks wiped out more than all the gains from a huge rally a day earlier as Wall Street continued to reel.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped 1,464 points, bringing it 20% below its record set last month and putting it in what Wall Street calls a “bear market.” The broader S&P 500 is just 1 percentage point away from falling into bear territory and bringing to an end one of the greatest runs in Wall Street’s history.

WHO officials said they thought long and hard about labeling the crisis a pandemic — defined as sustained outbreaks in multiple regions of the world.

The risk of employing the term, Ryan said, is “if people use it as an excuse to give up.” But the benefit is “potentially of galvanizing the world to fight.”

Underscoring the mounting challenge: soaring numbers in the U.S. and Europe’s status as the new epicenter of the pandemic. While Italy exceeds 12,000 cases and the United States has topped 1,300, China reported a record low of just 15 new cases Thursday and three-fourths of its infected patients have recovered.

China’s totals of 80,793 cases and 3,169 deaths are a shrinking portion of the world’s more than 126,000 infections and 4,600 deaths.

“If you want to be blunt, Europe is the new China,” said Robert Redfield, the head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

With 12,462 cases and 827 deaths, Italy said all shops and businesses except pharmacies and grocery stores would be closed beginning Thursday and designated billions in financial relief to cushion economic shocks in its latest efforts to adjust to the fast-evolving crisis that silenced the usually bustling heart of the Catholic faith, St. Peter’s Square.

In Iran, by far the hardest-hit country in the Middle East, the senior vice president and two other Cabinet ministers were reported to have been diagnosed with COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus. Iran reported another jump in deaths, by 62 to 354 — behind only China and Italy.

Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte said it was necessary to “go another step″ in toughening the already unprecedented travel and social restrictions that took effect Tuesday by shuttering pubs, restaurants, hair salons, cafeterias and other businesses that can’t operate with a meter (yard) of space between workers and customers.

“In this moment, all the world is looking at us for the number of infections, but also ... see great resistance,” Conte said on Facebook Live.

These measures are on top of travel and social restrictions that imposed an eerie hush on cities and towns across the country.

Still, the effectiveness of travel restrictions and quarantines will likely drop substantially as COVID-19 spreads globally, making it impossible for countries to keep out the virus. Health officials will also need to be more flexible in their coordinated response efforts, as the epicenters are likely to shift quickly and dramatically.

For most, the coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. But for a few, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illnesses, including pneumonia. But the vast majority recover: People with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while more severe illness may take three to six weeks, WHO says.

In the Mideast, most of the nearly 10,000 cases are in Iran or involve people who traveled there. Iran’s semiofficial Fars news agency said they include Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri. Iran’s ministers for cultural heritage, handcrafts and tourism, and for industry, mines and business were also infected, the agency said.

The United States snapped to attention with its spreading caseload and the impact of canceled events. The NCAA said it would play March Madness with no fans, and the NBA said it would suspend its season until further notice. Cities canceled St. Patrick’s Day parades, and several colleges shut down. Actor Tom Hanks and his wife Rita Wilson said they had the virus. He had been working in Australia when they felt ill with slight fevers, his statement said.

Officials in Seattle announced that public schools would close for about 53,000 students and large gatherings were banned in San Francisco and in Washington state, the hardest-hit U.S. state, with 29 deaths.

The virus upended the U.S. presidential campaign, with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders canceling rallies and leaving open the possibility that future campaign events could be impacted. Trump’s campaign insisted it would proceed as normal, although Vice President Mike Pence conceded future rallies would be evaluated “on a day to day basis.”

And at a Congressional hearing in Washington Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, sounded an alarm: “Bottom line, it’s going to get worse.”