Seven hundred and thirty days ago, the world stood still. Questions swirled about the newly discovered virus called COVID-19 that suddenly dominated conversation: Could it really be that bad? How does it spread? Is it like the flu?
Then the offices shut down, schools shuttered and arenas padlocked the doors. Grocery shelves were bare. Shelter in place became a suggestion, then an order in some places. Time with family and friends brought danger. Who was a carrier? It could have been any of us, but there was no way to test for it, no vaccine and no direct treatments.
We quickly learned about masks. And ventilators.
Since that week in 2020 when COVID-19 became a constant part of our reality, the virus has claimed approximately 966,000 lives in the United States and 6 million globally. The numbers have gotten so large that it's sometimes easy to forget they represent real human lives. People who were loved, whose sicknesses brought desperate bargains and whose deaths brought desolation.
The fight that was waged by those who died and those who managed to survive should never be forgotten. Here are some of the stories we can't forget that began the week the world stood still.
Those no longer with us
Before vaccines and treatments were available, getting COVID-19 was devastating for anyone with a preexisting condition and for others who were just unlucky. The virus, then and now, seems to choose the ferocity of its attack at random.
In the early days of 2020, most who got sick were isolated, with loved ones not being permitted in hospitals due to transmission concerns. To have a severe infection in early 2020 meant you would probably die alone.
When Scott Cohen's father caught COVID-19 in March 2020, he was quickly hospitalized and put on a ventilator. Worried about his father, Cohen soon started to feel ill himself, and about a week later, he wound up in the hospital, struggling to breathe.
Soon, Cohen was put on a ventilator fighting for his own life, but his father was losing his battle while he was just starting to fight his.
Not soon after Cohen was ventilated, his father passed away. Fighting off his infection, he didn't know until a week and a half later when he began to recover.
"He passed, and I had been on the ventilator during the funeral," Cohen said to KNX. "I didn't really get to see him or say goodbye or really even pay my respects with my family."
Remembering the situation now, he recalled it being emotional. He never had time to say goodbye, and this has seemed to be the case for many throughout the pandemic.
The first death caused by COVID-19 in the U.S. has been disputed throughout the past two years, but CDC officials believe that it happened sometime in January of 2020, the New York Times reported.
Since then, the pandemic has caused as much division as death, with those who do not take it seriously believing it was a hoax.
Nashville talk show host Phil Valentine was one of those cases. Valentine had shared his anti-vaccine and mask opinions on air for months before falling ill and succumbing to his injuries.
However, before his death, he would understand the severity of the virus, telling his brother Mike Valentine that he wished he had taken it seriously and taken the vaccine.
Mike Valentine said Phil was "regretful that he wasn't a more vocal advocate of the vaccination," The Associated Press reported. "For those listening, I know if he were able to tell you this, he would tell you, 'Go get vaccinated. Quit worrying about the politics. Quit worrying about all the conspiracy theories.'"
Still, some have remained vaccine-hesitant, refusing to get the shot no matter what. In one case, it even meant life or death when Chad Carswell of North Carolina was denied a kidney transplant for not being vaccinated.
"I was born free. I will die free. I'm not changing my mind," Carswell told WSCO. Carswell has still not received a transplant.
But some have changed their mind, including one survivor who spent 28 days in a hospital which included time on a ventilator, apologized to hospital staff who cared for him for his beliefs.
Adults and the elderly haven't been the only ones to die from COVID-19. In Texas, a 4-year-old became the first reported child death from the virus in September 2020 after her anti-vaccine mother was believed to have infected her after catching the virus. Another victim, Skylar Herbert was 5 years old in April 2020 when she became one of the first youngsters known to die from COVID.
"We basically just knew she wasn’t coming back to us,” LaVondria Herbert, Skylar's mother, told the media. Skylar was healthy and happy until she got a 'bad headache,' that spiraled into death a month later. Both of the girls' parents were first responders, and no one else got sick.
In Florida, a family lost six relatives over three weeks.
Richard Rose, a veteran from Port Clinton, Ohio, died from complications of COVID-19 in July 2020 after complaining that masks and media coverage of the virus were "hype." He wasn't alone in that belief. But this particular veteran loved video games, NASCAR, Tik Tok, Twitch, and paranormal investigations. He was a person who was well-loved and well wishes poured in after his death from friends.
We now know that pregnant women are particularly vulnerable to the virus, but we didn't know that yet in 2020. This young mother suffered three strokes and a heart attack before she was able to give birth. A Louisiana mother and her pregnant daughter both died of COVID, one day apart.
They had a joint memorial service.
Same for a Michigan couple married 47 years who died of COVID within a minute of each other in November 2020. "People were talking about it (coronavirus) not knowing my parents in the hospital fighting for their lives and I just had tears streaming down my cheeks listening to them,” their daughter said. “Our entire family is completely devastated.”
A tired healthcare system
Beyond the horrifying deaths and stories of loved ones gone too early is the punishment that the health care system has taken throughout the pandemic.
In March of 2020, Dr. Sarah Combs, a pediatric emergency medicine physician at Children's National Hospital in Washington D.C., had her first child.
While a normal person would understand being frightened to return to work at a hospital having a newborn at home, Combs said it inspired her.
Throughout the pandemic, the healthcare industry has been hammered with long shifts, shrinking staff, and too many patients to count at times. Combs shared that these past two years have not been easy, and it is felt among those fighting COVID-19 every day.
"I think the emotional toll was large, and I think that's what we've seen across the board," Combs said. "There's been a huge emotional toll on health care workers, and that has…unfortunately led some to just leave the profession and not do it anymore."
Dr. Michael Osterholm, a top epidemiologist in the country and the Director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, shared in January that the healthcare system was struggling.
By the time the omicron surge began, Osterholm compared the state of the nation's hospitals to a battlefield.
"You have, really, a perfect storm moment," Osterholm said. "And so the quality of care in many of our hospitals around the country right now has been severely diminished. That's going to add to more deaths and more serious illnesses just because trying to provide battlefield medicine is very different than trying to provide it in the confines of a high-tech ICU."
A report shared that 1 in 5 hospital workers have quit their jobs since the pandemic began. That's when New Yorkers rang bells every single day to honor the first responders, doctors, nurses and EMTs who were working past exhaustion to save as many people as they could.
Hospitals set up tents to house overflow COVID patients, who spilled into hallways and overwhelmed emergency rooms. Inmates manned morgue tents in El Paso. And when morgues reached capacity, hospitals brought in refrigerated trucks.
Dr. Jason Prasso, an intensive care unit doctor, said the "horror stories are countless." Healthcare workers agree it goes 'beyond burnout.'
"We try and stave off complications, but there's nothing I can do to reverse the course of the virus," Prasso said of trying to battle COVID-19.
For patients, medical workers, first responders, parents, teachers, researchers, grocery and pharmacy workers -- many of the last 730 days have been excruciating.
From work worries and avoiding spending time with family and friends, to sickness, isolation, and painful goodbyes, the last two years have taken their toll on our lives and on our mental health, according to numerous studies.
But after the week the world stood still, we managed day by day and month by month to move forward, counting our losses and looking toward the day the earth would regain its axis.
Still, with so many having watched close friends and family lose their lives, Dr. Sabrina Assoumou, an Infectious Diseases physician at Boston Medical Center and professor at Boston University School of Medicine, thinks the grief of the pandemic won't end soon.
"We've all been traumatized by this. From losing family members and loved ones to really having our lives turned upside down," Assoumou said. "We are all going to be struggling to get over and find the new normal. The next normal."
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