When authorities came to Dr. Liu Chun’s hospital in the central Chinese city of Changsha with a request for 130 volunteers, it took just two hours for all slots to be filled. As a respiratory doctor specializing in ICU patients, Liu felt it was her duty to join the group of medical workers summoned 340 kilometers north, to Wuhan, where rumors of a mysterious pneumonia-like illness had been circulating for weeks. At first, Liu, 48, wasn’t terribly worried. Her husband and 12-year-old daughter were supportive; she didn’t bother telling her elderly parents of her plans.
But when she arrived in Wuhan on Feb. 8, 2020, she saw panic on the tear-streaked faces of her team members. One colleague was busy scribbling his will. Female staff had been instructed to cut their hair brutally short and men to shave it almost entirely.
“I was a little nervous,” she tells TIME.
Liu was charged with setting up a field hospital for COVID-19 patients outside Tongji Hospital in Wuhan. The city of 11 million had been sealed since Jan. 23 in an unprecedented lockdown that was to last 76 days. Officials ordered Liu to accept 50 patients within hours of her arrival, despite a dire shortage of medicine, PPE and ventilators.
It was only then that the severity of the disease became apparent. Liu would check on patients and return within an hour to find they had quietly passed.
“It really shocked me,” she says. “We began to call it the ‘silent killer.’”
She spent a lot of time calming and counseling terrified nurses. “I began to feel the burden of looking after everyone,” Liu recalls, while fearing for her own safety, even in a hazmat suit. Whenever a bead of sweat would drip from her cheek into her mouth, “I would get that salty taste and briefly fear that I’d been contaminated.”
Liu was among the first clinicians to confront COVID-19, and the panic and confusion she felt one year ago has sadly now burdened frontline workers around the globe. As Wuhan marks the first anniversary of its unprecedented lockdown, the city’s experiences are the cause of both hope and caution as the virus again takes hold in the country where it was first discovered.
China has enjoyed months of relatively low coronavirus figures, but it recorded 222 new coronavirus cases on Jan. 21, following 223 on Jan. 20 and 133 the day before that. The new more infectious U.K. strain has also been detected in at least four cities. This comes just before the Lunar New Year festivities, when migrant workers all over China expect to head home to celebrate the holiday with their families. The movement of holidaymakers, involving some 200 million people, is humanity’s biggest annual migration. This year, it could be a potentially catastrophic spreader of disease.
The government is handling the resurgence with trademark ruthlessness. More than 23 million people have been ordered to remain inside their homes in northern China to stymie new outbreaks—double the number confined in Wuhan when the pandemic first erupted. A temporary quarantine center capable of housing 4,000 suspected cases has been thrown up outside the city of Shijiazhuang, just under 300 kilometers southwest of the capital Beijing. Its residents—like those of two other major cities—are forbidden from venturing outside.
According to state media, some 20,000 residents of 12 villages near Shijiazhuang were rudely awoken by sirens early last week and bused to government-run quarantine centers. Business magazine Caixin reported that in one district of Shijiazhuang, an old man was tied to a tree after venturing out to buy cigarettes, prompting the suspension of local officials.
Millions of people in five Beijing neighborhoods have now been ordered not to leave the city and to report for testing after two cases of the new variant were discovered. Shanghai meanwhile reported three cases on Thursday and has mandated the testing of all hospital staff. Arrivals from domestic high and medium-risk areas of the country are also obliged to undergo 14 days quarantine.
Zhang Wenhong, head of the city’s COVID-19 response, told reporters “These cases reminded the public that the virus has never been away from us and epidemic prevention and control will become a new normal.”
China’s ongoing fight against COVID-19
The resurgence has rendered Wuhan’s anniversary especially sensitive for the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Unhappy with accusations that officials bungled the handling of the outbreak’s early stages and silenced whistle-blowers, the party has sought to rewrite the past year as a tale of decisive courage under strongman President Xi Jinping.
Already, there is a cavernous exhibition hall in Wuhan commemorating the lockdown, with holograms of medical staff, letters from front-line health workers and a replica of a mass quarantine site just like those now being hastily erected in Shijiazhuang. A towering photo of Xi takes pride of place by a timeline of the measures he is said to have personally taken to stem the virus’ spread. In fact, Xi was neither seen nor heard during the early stages the outbreak. Premier Li Keqiang was the public face of Beijing’s response, while on the ground the undisputed heroes were everyday people who kept shelves stocked and bellies full.
Qian Ranhao was in charge of a distribution hub for online retailer JD.com, just 3 miles from Wuhan’s Jinyintan Hospital, where some of the first COVID-19 patients were treated. He was tasked with dispatching vital supplies of masks, drugs and disinfectant to the hospital each day, sleeping in the warehouse each evening to avoid taking the virus home to his heavily pregnant wife.
“She was nervous about me because I was on the street,” Qian tells TIME. “Even when I did return eventually home, we made sure to stay in different rooms.”
Qian’s son was born safely in August, but countless tales of tragedy have been expunged from the official account. The CCP’s already formidable talent for rewriting history has been honed even further under Xi, who has removed presidential term limits and fostered a cult of personality. In recent weeks, censors have scrubbed terms like “first anniversary” and “whistleblower” from Chinese social media, where paeans from corporate sponsors exalting Wuhan’s remarkable sacrifice and recovery are instead plentiful.
The GDP of Hubei province—of which Wuhan is the capital—fell 39.2% in the first quarter of 2020, but recovered strongly to post a mere 5% contraction over the cataclysmic year. Across China, official data suggests GDP grew 2.3% last year, though the economy has been extremely unbalanced. Speaking at a December forum promoting economic development along the Yangtze River, which runs through Wuhan, Wang Zhonglin, the city’s top official, entreated the residents not to “slow down efforts to work toward becoming an international metropolis.”
That the message is being painstakingly curated and controlled is underscored by last month’s sentencing to four years in prison of Zhang Zhan, 37, a citizen journalist who had chronicled Wuhan’s lockdown. Scientists are also under strict orders not to report anything that may corroborate the belief that the virus originated inside China. A WHO team belatedly arrived in Wuhan last week to investigate the source of the coronavirus, but it’s uncertain how much freedom they will have to visit places they deem of interest following their two weeks quarantine. Two of the party were denied entry after testing positive for COVID-19 antibodies.
The government has meanwhile unveiled sweeping plans to vaccinate 50 million people before the Lunar New Year holiday in mid-February, and has so far managed to inoculate 10 million. State employees have been expressly forbidden from traveling over the holiday, and officials have urged everyone else to avoid it if possible. That’s a tough ask for the many millions of casual workers for whom the holiday is their only opportunity each year to reunite with loved ones.
Some 1.7 billion trips are expected during the festival, according to China’s Transport Ministry. That represents a 40% drop on 2019 figures, and a new rule requires travelers to present a negative nucleic acid test upon arrival at their hometowns. Nevertheless, one year after the start of the Wuhan lockdown, officials must be nervous.
Gang Fang, assistant professor of biology at NYU Shanghai, says the potential for seeding outbreaks is very real and officials are well aware of the stakes.
“If officials don’t control cases in their local area they will lose their job and political career,” he tells TIME. “Controlling the virus is their most important responsibility right now.”
Health officials stress they haven’t determined whether the variant might be more contagious or resistant to vaccines.
A coronavirus variant first identified in Denmark has ripped through Northern California — including outbreaks at nursing homes, jails and a hospital in the San Jose area — prompting state and local officials to investigate whether it may be more transmissible.
California officials disclosed the rise of the variant Sunday night after genetic monitoring linked it to a fast-growing share of new cases, as well as to the outbreaks in Santa Clara county, which includes San Jose.
This rising variant is distinct from the highly contagious mutation discovered by Britain, which has also been found in California, and which federal health officials project could become the dominant strain in the United States by March based on its proven higher transmissibility.
Experts stress that they need to look more closely at the circumstances of the Northern California outbreaks, as well as at the latest variant — this one, known as L452R — before declaring it more contagious or more dangerous than the virus already broadly circulating.
The L452R variant was first detected in northern Europe in March and has since been confirmed in more than a dozen states, including California in May. The discovery did not garner much attention at the time because all viruses change constantly as they replicate. But public health authorities deem some variants to be “of concern” if evidence suggests they might be more contagious, potentially deadlier or resistant to vaccines.
California publicized the latest variant at a late Sunday news conference after researchers identified it in about 25 percent of samples collected between Dec. 14 and Jan. 3, a surge from 3.8 percent of samples collected in the preceding three-week period.
“That is suggestive, and it’s a little worrisome,” Charles Chiu, a virologist at the University of California at San Francisco said at the briefing. But Chiu stressed it was too early to conclude the variant is more infectious because scientists do not know whether their sampling was representative or whether the variant’s increase might be due to random chance, or even a series of superspreader events.
Officials urged people to follow public health guidelines to minimize the risk of contracting the variant as new daily cases in the hard-hit state plateau at more than 38,000, while deaths average more than 515 daily.
“It’s too soon to know if this variant will spread more rapidly than others,” said Erica Pan, California’s state epidemiologist, “but it certainly reinforces the need for all Californians to wear masks and reduce mixing with people outside their immediate households to help slow the spread of the virus.”
Genetic sequencing of viruses is still limited in the United States, preventing health officials from having a real-time picture of all the strains of coronavirus spreading across the country and their prevalence.
California’s preliminary data is based on fewer than 400 samples that overwhelmingly came from the state’s north. Southern California is the heaviest hit part of the state, with deaths in Los Angeles County reaching one every seven minutes and ICU beds and oxygen running out, although hospitalizations have begun to plateau. Environmental regulators on Sunday temporarily lifted limits on cremations because of a backlog in Los Angeles County.
The L452R strain in California raised alarms because it is associated with several large outbreaks in Santa Clara County, including one at a hospital that infected at least 90 people and killed one staff member. Officials at Kaiser Permanente San Jose Medical Center said a staff member wearing an inflatable Christmas tree costume to spread holiday cheer likely spread coronavirus-laden droplets instead.
Sara Cody, Santa Clara’s top public health official, described that episode as a “very unusual outbreak with a lot of illnesses, and it seemed to spread quite fast.” The county is working with state health officials and the CDC to investigate what happened, she said.
Cody cautioned that the outbreak could have been driven by factors unrelated to the variant, such as changes in ventilation or personal protective equipment practices at the hospital.
“The takeaway is not that we need to start worrying about this,” Cody said Sunday. “The takeaway is, this is a variant that’s becoming more prevalent, and we need to lean in and understand more about it.”
County officials on Monday disclosed other places where the variant had been found as a result of aggressive genetic sequencing, “including cases associated with the Kaiser outbreak, skilled nursing facility outbreaks, cases in jails and shelters, and specimens from testing sites in the community,” according to a statement. “This suggests that the variant is now relatively common in our community.”
Chiu, the virologist who conducted the genetic sequencing, said a deeper investigation must be done to determine if the strain is more transmissible like the one found in the United Kingdom.
He also raised concerns that a mutation associated with the variant might make it more resistant to vaccines because it occurs in a critical part of the spike protein that is targeted by the vaccines,but he added that the virus must be grown in a lab and tested more fully before any conclusions can be drawn.
“Mutations happen all the time,” said William Hanage, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “Some of them take off and the great majority of them don’t. The main reason why we are paying attention to this is because this mutation has previously been noted as being of particular concern in terms of diminishing the efficacy of the immune response.”
Carlos del Rio, a professor of medicine and global health at Emory University, said the rising prevalence of the variant shows the urgent need for more genetic sequencing in the United States and for greater compliance with public health measures such as wearing masks and avoiding crowds.
“We really need to hunker down because if you are really concerned about mutations, stop transmission,” del Rio said. “The more mutations you see, the more uncontrolled transmission you will see.”
After starting the new year with record-high cases, deaths and hospitalizations, the United States is starting to see signs of slowing spread despite fears of a post-holiday surge that would continue through January. The seven-day average of new infections has slowed since last Tuesday, and hospitalizations have started to plateau, according to Washington Post tracking.
Still, Scott Gottlieb, a former Food and Drug Administration commissioner, warned that the advent of more transmissible variants could reverse that progress.
“As current epidemic surge peaks, we may see 3-4 weeks of declines in new cases but then new variant will take over,” Gottlieb tweeted Sunday, referring to the British variant. “It’ll double in prevalence about every week. It’ll change the game and could mean we have persistent high infection through spring until we vaccinate enough people.”
“It took 12 weeks for the death toll to rise from 200,000 to 300,000. The death toll has leaped from 300,000 to almost 400,000 in less than five weeks,” The Post’s Marc Fisher, Lori Rozsa, Mark Kreidler and Annie Gowen report.
Yet despite the massive death toll and the changes to daily life caused by the pandemic, the individual deaths are largely invisible.
“Coronavirus victims who die in the hospital often spend their final days cut off from family and friends, their only human contact coming from medical personnel hidden behind layers of protective gear. Even those who die at home often decline in quarantine, keeping a lonely vigil over their body’s fight,” my colleagues write.
The numbers are expected to quickly rise. Rochelle Walensky, the incoming director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told “Face The Nation” on Sunday that she anticipated half a million deaths by mid-February.
“That doesn’t speak to the tens of thousands of people who are living with a yet- uncharacterized syndrome after they’ve recovered. We still yet haven’t yet seen the ramifications from holiday travel, holiday gathering in terms of high rates of hospitalizations,” Walensky added.
England will enter a national lockdown until at least mid-February to stem the spread of the coronavirus, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced Monday, as the so-called U.K. variant continues to spread throughout the country.
Coronavirus is again surging in the U.K. because of a new, more transmissible mutation of Covid-19 called B.1.1.7.
The lockdown will close all non-essential businesses and restaurants will be required to limit service to takeout orders.
Schools will be closed to all students except for the children of essential workers.
Johnson’s announcement comes after Scotland imposed a similar lockdown earlier Monday.
This is a developing story.
More than 350,000 people have died of the coronavirus in the U.S., with another surge of cases and deaths expected in the coming weeks as a result of smaller holiday gatherings.
The country reached the grim milestone early Sunday morning, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. More than 20 million people have been infected since the pandemic began nearly one year ago, according to the tally.
Public health experts attributed a nationwide spike in cases, hospitalizations and deaths in early December to a large number of Americans traveling over the Thanksgiving holiday, and pleaded with citizens to stay home for Christmas and New Year’s celebrations.
Multiple states have reported a record number of cases, including North Carolina and Arizona, according to the Associated Press. New York hit 1 millions cases total as of Saturday, becoming the fourth state to do so along with Texas, Florida and California.
Last month, federal officials approved two vaccines by Pfizer and Moderna for emergency use. The first round of doses have been administered to doctors, nurses and other front line healthcare workers as well as nursing home residents.
The elderly and other patients deemed “high risk” are the next group of Americans slated to receive vaccines with public health officials estimating younger and healthy citizens can expect to be eligible for vaccination toward the middle to end of spring.
The Centers of Disease Control and Prevention last week reported more than 2 million people in America have been vaccinated, far short of the 20 million figure the federal government initially said it hoped to top by this time. That number has since grown to 4.2 million as of Sunday.
“We would have liked to have seen it run smoothly and have 20 million doses into people today by the end of the 2020, which was the projection,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease doctor. “Obviously, it didn’t happen, and that’s disappointing.”
Fauci said a targeted approach in assisting local governments in vaccine rollout programs is the best way for the federal government to make up for lost time.
“There really has to be a lot more effort in the sense of resources for the locals, namely, the states, the cities, the counties, the places where the vaccine is actually going into the arms of individuals,” Fauci said.
California reported its first case of a new variant of the coronavirus that may be more transmissible, AP reports.
The big picture: California is the second state to document a confirmed case of the variant — which originated in the United Kingdom — after Colorado reported the first case in the United States on Tuesday.
- California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced the infection during an online conversation with Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, according to AP.
- The governor said the case was located in Southern California, but he did not provide any other details about the person who was infected.
- “I don’t think Californians should think that this is odd. It’s to be expected,” Fauci said Wednesday, per AP.
Of note: There is thus far no evidence that the new variant is more deadly — only that it appears more transmissible. There is also no evidence that COVID-19 vaccines will be less effective against the new variant.
- A non-peer reviewed study by the Centre for Mathematical Modelling of Infectious Diseases at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine found that the variant is 56% more transmissible than other strains.
- The British government previously warned that a new variant could be up to 70% more transmissible.
President-elect Joe Biden plans to deliver an address on the coronavirus pandemic as the nation experiences what his chief medical adviser on the issue, Anthony S. Fauci, described Tuesday as a surge in cases “that has just gotten out of control in many respects.”
Biden’s remarks, planned Tuesday afternoon in Wilmington, Del., are expected to be his most extensive comments to date since early this month, when he laid out a plan for his first 100 days in office that included imploring all Americans to wear masks.
Fauci, appearing on CNN on Tuesday morning, lamented what he expects to be a post-holiday increase in cases and the strong possibility than January’s caseload will exceed even that of December. “You just have to assume it’s going to get worse,” Fauci said.
Fauci also acknowledged that the rollout of vaccines was not reaching as many Americans as quickly as the 20 million that Trump administration had pledged by the end of the month.
“We certainly are not at the numbers that we wanted to be at the end of December,” said Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “We are below where we want to be.”
But Fauci, who accepted Biden’s invitation to play an expanded role in his administration, expressed hope that by “showing leadership from the top,” Biden could make an impact — comments that appeared to be implicit criticism of President Trump, who has said little publicly about the crisis since Election Day.
“What he’s saying is that let’s take at least 100 days and everybody, every single person put aside this nonsense of making masks be a political statement or not,” Fauci said of Biden. “We know what works. We know social distancing works. We know avoiding congregant settings works. For goodness sakes, let’s all do it, and you will see that curve will come down.”
Separately Tuesday, Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris plans to get vaccinated in Washington. Biden received his first shot last week.
In remarks earlier this month, Biden also pledged to distribute 100 million vaccine shots in his first 100 days in office and said he wanted to open as many schools safely during the period as possible. He has also promised to sign an executive order requiring masks to be worn on federal property.
On Monday, Celine Gounder, a member of Biden’s covid-19 advisory board, said during a television appearance that Biden is also considering invoking the Defense Production Act to increase production of coronavirus vaccines,
Appearing on CNBC’s “Squawk Box,” Grounder said Biden could invoke the wartime-production law “to make sure the personal protective equipment, the test capacity and the raw materials for the vaccines are produced in adequate supply.”
During his CNN appearance, Fauci said that getting children back to school safely should remain an imperative, despite rising caseloads.
“You can’t have one size fits all, but the bottom line, what I call default position, should be that wherever we are, try as best as we can to get the children back to school and to keep them in school and to have a plan to try and keep them as safe as possible,” he said.
About 200,000 new coronavirus cases have been reported daily in recent weeks, with a record high of 252,431 on Dec. 17.
The nation’s overall caseload surpassed 19 million Sunday, even as the holidays were expected to cause a lag in reporting. Hospitalizations have exceeded 100,000 since the start of December and hit a peak of 119,000 on Dec. 23. Deaths are averaging more than 2,000 a day, with the most ever reported — 3,406 fatalities — on Dec. 17.
With bubble-enclosed Santas and Zoom-enhanced family gatherings, much of the United States played it safe over Christmas while the coronavirus rampaged across the country.
But a significant number of Americans traveled, and uncounted gatherings took place, as they will over the New Year holiday.
And that, according to the nation’s top infectious disease expert, Anthony S. Fauci, could mean new spikes in cases, on top of the existing surge.
“We very well might see a post-seasonal — in the sense of Christmas, New Year’s — surge,” Dr. Fauci said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
“We’re really at a very critical point,” he said. “If you put more pressure on the system by what might be a post-seasonal surge because of the traveling and the likely congregating of people for, you know, the good warm purposes of being together for the holidays, it’s very tough for people to not do that.”
On “Fox News Sunday,” Adm. Brett P. Giroir, the administration’s testing coordinator, noted that Thanksgiving travel did not lead to an increase of cases in all places, which suggested that many people heeded recommendations to wear masks and limit the size of gatherings.
“It really depends on what the travelers do when they get where they’re going,” Admiral Giroir said. “We know the actual physical act of traveling in airplanes, for example, can be quite safe because of the air purification systems. What we really worry about is the mingling of different bubbles once you get to your destination.”
Still, U.S. case numbers are about as high as they have ever been. Total infections surpassed 19 million on Saturday, meaning that at least 1 in 17 people have contracted the virus over the course of the pandemic. And the virus has killed more than 332,000 people — one in every thousand in the country.
Two of the year’s worst days for deaths have been during the past week. A number of states set death records on Dec. 22 or Dec. 23, including Alabama, Wisconsin, Arizona and West Virginia, according to The Times’s data.
And hospitalizations are hovering at a pandemic height of about 120,000, according to the Covid Tracking Project.
Against that backdrop, millions of people in the United States have been traveling, though many fewer than usual.
About 3.8 million people passed through Transportation Safety Administration travel checkpoints between Dec. 23 and Dec. 26, compared with 9.5 million on those days last year. Only a quarter of the number who flew on the day after Christmas last year did so on Friday, and Christmas Eve travel was down by one-third from 2019.
And AAA’s forecast that more than 81 million Americans would travel by car for the holiday period, from Dec. 23 to Jan. 3, which would be about one-third fewer than last year.
For now, the U.S. is no longer seeing overall explosive growth, although California’s worsening outbreak has canceled out progress in other parts of the country. The state has added more than 300,000 cases in the seven-day period ending Dec. 22. And six Southern states have seen sustained case increases in the last week: Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, Florida and Texas.
Holiday reporting anomalies may obscure any post-Christmas spike until the second week of January. Testing was expected to decrease around Christmas and New Year’s, and many states said they would not report data on certain days.
On Christmas Day, numbers for new infections, 91,922, and deaths, 1,129, were significantly lower than the seven-day averages. But on Saturday, new infections jumped past 225,800 new cases and deaths rose past 1,640, an expected increase over Friday as some states reported numbers for two days post-Christmas.