From Wuhan outbreak to 'exponential spread': How COVID-19 dominated the year 2020

Abby Haglage
·4 min read

What began as rumblings of a strange, pneumonia-like illness in Wuhan, China, in December 2019 escalated to a pandemic the likes of which the world has never seen. 2020, in turn, was a year of upheaval, a year of both loss and of hope, a year that will be remembered in the history books.

As of this week, more than 21 million Americans have been infected with COVID-19 and over 360,000 have died. Initially, many treated the virus as if it was someone else’s problem, a problem for seafood markets in China and cruise ships quarantined off the coast of Japan, that set off a wave of anti-Asian harassment and assaults that would last through the year.

But in March, when beloved husband-and-wife actors Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson tested positive for the virus, the veneer of invulnerability began to fall away. Then the NBA announced it would suspend its season and President Trump revealed he’d be banning travel from Europe. The reality of the pandemic had officially arrived stateside.

Overnight, “staying home” went from a mandate to a way of life. Offices went dark and homeschooling became the norm. Masks were eschewed at first, but then — following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s discovery of asymptomatic spread — bought in bulk. Baking bread became a pastime; walks around the block a luxury. Americans came together on Zoom while drinking more and exercising less. The country unified around DJ D-Nice and banged pots for the health care workers risking their lives.

Then, in May, a video emerged of a Minneapolis police officer killing an unarmed Black man named George Floyd and the world rose to its feet. Protesters from 60 countries and six continents took to the streets to oppose police brutality and raise the cry that Black Lives Matter. Cities began to discuss police reform, and white Americans — many for the first time — acknowledged their privilege.

By summer, the virus had proven how formidable it could be, infecting more than 10 million Americans only six months after the first U.S. case. InStyle, breaking from its history of glitzy covers, chose to feature Dr. Anthony Fauci, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director, who revealed he’d been getting death threats. In late August, nearly 500,000 people descended on South Dakota for a 10-day motorcycle rally and weeks later, the Midwest was engulfed by the virus.

In an attempt to revive spirits, the Emmys hosted the “first COVID-era awards show” virtually in late September, gifting America a Zendaya victory dance, a Tracy Morgan cameo and a tribute to the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Weeks later, despite routine claims from the White House that the pandemic was overblown, President Trump and first lady Melania Trump revealed they had tested positive for COVID-19. After a short stay in the hospital, Trump returned to the Oval Office, tweeting that he felt better than he did “20 years ago” — a statement multiple experts attributed to his treatment of steroids.

In early November, a nail-biting election victory went to former Vice President Joe Biden and California Sen. Kamala Harris, who will become the first female vice president (and of color). But as was so often the case this year, COVID-19 did not relent. By Nov. 13, with cases spiking in 46 states, experts declared that the U.S. had reached “exponential spread,” a level of transmission that can only be stopped through a vaccine.

That week, some good news arrived via American drugmaker Pfizer, which reported that early data on its mRNA vaccine showed more than 90 percent efficacy in phase III clinical trials. Less than a week later, competitor Moderna announced that its vaccine had proven 94 percent effective, with few side effects. And while Americans were urged not to travel for Thanksgiving by the CDC and state officials, some couldn’t resist.

By mid-December, health care workers and nursing home residents began receiving the first of two doses of the vaccine, as President-elect Joe Biden declared a plan to vaccinate 100 million Americans in the first 100 days of his term. Remarkably, the beginning of 2021 has proven even more tumultuous than the last 12 months. But as lawmakers grapple with democracy under siege, the pandemic rages on.

So here’s a visual look back at what we learned — and what we didn’t.

Video Credits:

Photos: Getty, Associated Press

July 2020 In Style cover photo: Kent Frankie Alduino

3D Models: Earth-Globe by Dominic Baker/Sketchfab,

N95 Particulate Respirator Mask 3D model: Daveido/Sketchfab,

Medical ventilator: cgaxis/Sketchfab

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