Thursday marks the one-year anniversary of when the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a “pandemic.”
Unlike an outbreak or epidemic, a pandemic is a disease that is widespread across multiple regions of the world, and affecting a large number of people. The decision to wait until March 11, 2020, to declare the coronavirus a pandemic was debated, as the WHO was accused for not being more proactive in its declaration.
CDC officials on Feb. 24, 2020, warned that the coronavirus would likely become a pandemic.
In the weeks between Feb. 24 and March 11, the world largely continued to function as normal. Travelers boarded air planes and cruise ships, sports fans packed stadiums, entertainers graced stages.
But those interactions helped fuel a rapid spread of a deadly virus.
"WHO has been assessing this outbreak around the clock and we are deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity, and by the alarming levels of inaction," said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of WHO, on March 11, 2020. “We have therefore made the assessment that COVID19 can be characterized as a pandemic”
A snapshot at the virus on March 11, 2020
At the time the WHO declared the virus a pandemic, there had been 118,000 confirmed coronavirus cases reported in 114 countries, resulting in 4,291 deaths, many of those in the Wuhan region of China.
According to Johns Hopkins University’s global coronavirus tracker, more than 117 million cases of the coronavirus have been reported, killing more than 2.6 million people.
In the United States alone 29 million COVID-19 cases have been confirmed, resulting in more than 528,000 coronavirus deaths. At the time, 31 coronavirus deaths were reported in the US with just over 1,000 confirmed cases. But testing was scarce at the time, meaning many cases likely went undetected at the time.
"I can say we will see more cases and things will get worse than they are right now," said Dr. Anthony Fauci on March 11, 2020 before a congressional panel.
Following the WHO’s announcement, a number of major universities decided to suspend in-person classes, the NCAA announced that its March Madness men’s and women’s basketball tournaments would be held without fans, and governors began limiting access to the nation’s nursing homes.
Later in the evening, a contest between the Utah Jazz and Oklahoma City Thunder was suspended right at tip-off when the Jazz had a player test positive for the virus. The NBA then announced that it was suspending its season.
“It’s, ‘Oh my God.’ The NBA is such an ingrained part of American culture that it almost is sacrosanct. To be able to suspend that means something really, really serious is going on,” Fauci said in a 30 for 30 podcast about the events of March 11.
President Donald Trump announced that most non-essential travel between most of Europe and the US would be suspended.
Then actors Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson both announced they had contracted the virus.
While groceries store had been depleted of hand sanitizer and paper towels for days, the series of announcements on March 11, 2020, was a shocking notice to Americans of the severity of the coronavirus.
In the coming days, states closed schools, non-essential businesses and even places of worship and parks. Hospitals began suspending non-essential procedures. Nearly all sports leagues suspended play, and would not resume for months. Some leagues, such as minor league baseball, have yet to resume since the start of the pandemic.
“I’ve never lived through something like this. I think most people would tell you the same thing: that 2020 has been a, a very strange year. It’s really a watershed moment in American history and you can trace it back to that day on March 11th,” Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt said in the 30 for 30 podcast.
When does a pandemic “end”
Health officials say that the “pandemic” phase of the coronavirus is likely to continue for some time. While the US and other developed nations could reach herd immunity in 2021, many nations might not reach that phase for some time.
The National Institutes of Health says that an intensive phase of recovery and evaluation may be required in determining an end to the pandemic.
With the H1N1 pandemic, officials waited until the end of the flu season in both hemisphere in order to declare an end to the pandemic, while stating that surveillance and monitoring of the disease was still required in the post-pandemic phase.