March 11, 2020: The Day COVID-19 Became Real for America, and What’s Happened Since

The COVID-19 pandemic not only sickened and killed people, it closed restaurants, emptied out the schools and stressed many residents who had to adjust to being confined to their homes. (Sources: UAB and Tom Gordon)

The first time the world found out about the coronavirus now known as COVID-19 was through an announcement of the first case in the Wuhan province of China on the last day of 2019.

That was the start of the virus that has now spread around the world. But COVID-19 didn’t really hit home for Americans until March 11, 2020 — a day that changed the country.

One year ago Thursday, the World Health Organization declared the fast-spreading outbreak to be a pandemic. Before then, there were more cases in Europe than China, with Italy hardest hit. That soon changed.

The WHO announcement didn’t make many waves in the United States that morning. But later that evening, it was the sports world that gave Americans their first glimpse of how everyone’s world was about to turn upside down.

Viewers on ESPN saw history unfold at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, where three referees from the National Basketball Association were in an intense courtside conversation with Utah Jazz coach Quin Snyder and his Oklahoma City Thunder counterpart, Billy Donovan. Minutes before their teams were scheduled to play, Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver made a nearly instantaneous decision to shut the entire league down, sending fans in Oklahoma City home with scant explanation.

Other leagues quickly followed suit. The National Hockey League suspended play the next day, Major League Baseball canceled the start of spring training, Major League Soccer halted its 2021 season two weeks after it began. The PGA Tour halted the Players Championship golf tournament after one round of play, and NASCAR called off its weekend of racing at Atlanta. College sports were also stopped, with the NCAA men’s and women’s national basketball championships eventually canceled and all spring sports wiped out entirely.

The shutdowns marked the beginning of a series of events that changed virtually every facet of American life. In the days to come, schools of all levels were closed while administrators figured out what to do next. Churches moved their weekend services to livestreaming video before empty sanctuaries or canceled the services altogether; participation plummeted in the weeks to come.

Governments put severe limitations on business operations, especially retailers and hospitality industries. Restaurants, in particular, suddenly saw customers banned from their dining rooms, forcing some to close — sometimes permanently. Food and grocery delivery became the norm, with companies such as DoorDash and GrubHub thriving while other businesses were in peril.

School systems soon realized that COVID was not going away anytime soon and developed plans for virtual education — teaching students in their homes using computers and videoconferencing software. That became a problem for some parents whose children would be staying at home while they were at work, until they soon learned they would be working from home, as well. “Zoom” became more than just the name for a popular brand of conferencing app; the word was applied to anything using conferencing by internet.

In a year when a fever-pitch presidential campaign was already occupying much of public discourse, the pandemic only served to push that discourse into overdrive. President Donald Trump and his Democratic challengers, including eventual election winner Joe Biden, focused on the virus in different ways, with Trump often battling health officials over the course of action needed to stop COVID. The issue became, along with Trump’s accusations of election fraud, the central focus of the election.

State leaders, including Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, struggled to persuade a skeptical public to stay home, or at least wear face masks to stop the spread. “Social distancing” became a new catch phrase, either to be promoted or ridiculed. Ivey’s announcements of revised public health measures became a routine and remain so today.

As the year wore on, the numbers of those infected grew rapidly, and the death toll climbed, as well. As the end-of-year holidays brought families together, much to the consternation of health officials, the numbers spiked. Hospitals found their capacities for COVID patients stretched beyond limits. In Alabama, the number of new cases each day passed 4,000, and daily deaths reached triple digits for the first time. The crisis reached its peak in the state on Jan. 11, exactly 10 months after the pandemic declaration.

Since that peak, the numbers of new infections, deaths and hospitalized COVID patients has dropped sharply, due in part to the passing of holiday gatherings. The introduction of vaccines has also greatly slowed the spread among those most vulnerable. Beginning with Trump’s “Occupation Warp Speed” initiative in May, pharmaceutical companies worked at breakneck pace to develop a drug to stop the virus in its tracks. Two successful vaccines emerged at first and later a third, and efforts to get the drugs to the elderly and front-line medical workers began in earnest. Distribution proved to be problematic, though, and still is in many places. In Alabama, Ivey is deploying Alabama National Guard units to set up mobile vaccination venues in rural areas.

Light at the End of the Tunnel?

Now, two months after that peak and one year after the pandemic became official in name and in American daily life, the numbers are falling to levels that may indicate the beginning of the end. As of Thursday’s numbers reported by the Alabama Department of Public Health, the 7-day moving averages of new daily cases and deaths, plus the total of hospitalized COVID patients, has fallen by 84% or more from their all-time highs in January.

In the past seven days, the average of new cases is down to 598.86 per day. Two days before, that number dipped below 600 for the first time since June 11. Daily deaths fell to a 25.71 7-day average over the previous week, a level not seen since Dec. 2.

Statewide, COVID hospitalizations dropped to 475 on Wednesday, the latest day reported. That total has hovered around 500 since March 5 after hitting a high of 3,084 on Jan. 11.

In Jefferson County, there have been 72,484 cases of COVID reported during the pandemic, with the first coming March 16, 2020. After reaching a record high 7-day average of just more than 750 two days before Christmas, the average has fallen to 116.14 over the past week, a decrease of 84% from the peak.

The first Jefferson County COVID death was not reported until April 1. Since then, 1,417 people have died from the virus in the county, with 20 in the past seven days. The current 7-day average has stayed around three per day for the past two weeks.

The national trends have led officials in many states to loosen numerous restrictions, particularly in states with Republican leadership. In the past few days, Texas and Mississippi governors announced that nearly all restrictions would be lifted, despite warnings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that it’s too soon to remove all restrictions.

On Wednesday, another step in the return to normal took place when the Texas Rangers baseball team announced that their Opening Day game April 5 against the Toronto Blue Jays would be played before a full-capacity crowd. It will be the first pro sports franchise to have all seats available for a game since the shutdowns began last March.

Closer to home, the return to pre-pandemic norms is already under way. Many area school systems have opened their facilities back to traditional in-school teaching at least a few days a week, though parents may opt to stay with virtual instruction if they wish. Scholastic sports are back with the AHSAA high school basketball season just completed and spring sports already under way. Most businesses have at least part of their operations back to normal, though working from home may become a permanent fixture for many workers, at least for some days each week.

Public sports events are resuming. The Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama race is scheduled for April 18 at Barber Motorsports Park, followed by two NASCAR Cup Series races at Talladega in late April and in October. Birmingham Legion FC resumes play in American professional soccer’s second tier March 28, and the Birmingham Barons will finally be back at Regions Field after losing the entire 2020 season to the pandemic.

But the biggest comeback in the state may come on Sept. 11, as the Alabama Crimson Tide is scheduled to play Mercer in the home opener of its 2021 season. Athletic Director Greg Byrne announced last week via Twitter that the Tide would open its defense of the national championship “with plans to have a full stadium.”

If so, and if nothing else — like a resurgence of the coronavirus and its variants —gets in the way, Alabamians may celebrate the unofficial end of the pandemic exactly a year and a half after its official beginning.