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Museum of America in the Pandemic Year, 2020

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Wednesday, January 1

Jan 1: Xinhua News reports that the Huanan Seafood Market has closed for cleaning and disinfection. Chinese Disease Control Director, George F. Gao, briefs US CDC Director Robert Redfield about the severity of the virus. Sharon Sanders and her team at flutrackers.com notice strange reports coming out of China of an unknown flu. The World Health Organization Newsroom states that “the causal agent has not yet been identified or confirmed.”*

Contributors' Voices

Memories of Sharon Sanders about the first public word of a new virus in China. Sharon Sanders is the director of flutrackers.com, January 1-25, 2020.

Typically, every night I make one last check on the site to be sure everything is running smoothly. On the night of December 30 at 11:40 pm I glanced and saw a new post made by a long time but infrequent poster, “penguinsix”. I knew that he had been living for some years in Hong Kong but had recently returned to the United States. What he posted on FluTrackers was a media report from a Hong Kong newspaper describing an outbreak of acute respiratory disease in 27 people who all had contact to an open market in Wuhan city.

This immediately got my attention because penguinsix still had family in Hong Kong and I knew he could effectively evaluate the media reports originating from there. I did a quick search using Chinese language sources and saw that the English media report in Hong Kong was backed up by two major China government sponsored media. I called Michael Coston who authors the Avian Flu Diary blog at that late hour because we have an agreement to call each other if a very significant item comes across our desk. In 14 years I have never called him late at night.

What was significant about those media reports was their mere existence. Nothing gets through the China internet firewall unless the government approves. For a single outbreak of any disease involving 27 humans that was being widely broadcast meant something serious was going on. I have been tracking diseases in China since 2006 and I can not remember any initial human outbreaks that large. For instance, in the H7N9 avian flu epidemic the announcements of China’s human cases were in the range of 1-4 persons per event.

I did not know what this acute respiratory illness was but my guess was some strain of avian flu since all of the known cases were tied to an open market (South China Seafood market) where chickens were probably sold.

I posted the two Chinese media reports and then also searched our archives for related information. I posted three links to interesting articles from the summer of 2019. I collect articles about China’s disease status to get a hint of what is actually going on there. Dr. Stefano Prandoni (tetano) in Italy signed in and made the next post.

I slept for a couple of hours and then posted announcements by the Taiwan and Hong Kong governments. Another participant (Pathfinder) was able to finally access the Wuhan city internet site and posted their confirming announcement. It specifically stated that there was no apparent human-to-human transmission and that no health care workers were infected. More of our team added posts: alert, Shiloh, Ronan Kelly, Treyfish, Commonground, Emily, Vibrant62, and FrenchieGirl, In the first 24 hours we published about 18 items.

The next day (January 1) a virologist friend from Australia, Ian Mackay, asked me on skype when did I think this outbreak started and I answered, “Tricky”. I then forwarded to him several links of possibly related articles from 2019. Also on January 1st several doctors were detained in Wuhan for posting about the “mystery pneumonia” cases on the internet. China warned about spreading rumors regarding this outbreak.

Our team was busy finding everything they could. By the end of the fourth day it was reported that 25% of the people who were sick needed treatment in the ICU. I was concerned at this point. The South China Seafood market is only a couple of blocks from one of the largest transportation hubs in China.

Over the next few days the cases in China increased to 59 and Hong Kong began seeing cases. There was a run on masks.

On January 6th the US CDC issued a “watch” on the mystery pneumonia in China. This was highly unusual. In the first week we had over 100 posts on our thread.

On January 20th it was announced that some health care workers in China were sick. Always a bad sign.

On January 21st the city of Wuhan was quarantined. This was alarm bell time. China would have never closed a city of 11 million unless the disease was out-of-control. We had made 367 posts on our thread and China was now reporting 440 cases.

The videos from inside China began to circulate. Some unconscious or dead people laying on the streets and sidewalks. Health care workers in full protective gear. Overrun hospital waiting rooms and corridors. Bodies being stacked in vans outside a hospital.

Everyone I knew in the disease tracking world was aghast. Despite assurances that this illness may not be human-to-human efficient.  It sure looked efficient to most of us. I began to personally prepare for eventual spread inside U.S. Our site began to warn both on the site and on our twitter account. We rearranged FluTrackers to feature this emerging situation and preparations for it.

While I kept hoping that somehow the disease could be stopped I knew it was probably impossible after seeing coordinated street spraying efforts on videos from China. This meant not only was the illness probably highly contagious but had the doubly bad effect of fomite transmission.

Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, Vietnam, South Korea, Hong Kong, Thailand, Singapore, United States had all reported cases by January 23rd. Huanggang, a city of 8 million, was newly locked down. W.H.O. declined to declare a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.

I kept asking myself, “Am I seeing what I think I am seeing?”

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Government of Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, Press Release, 12-31-2019. https://www.info.gov.hk/gia/general/201912/31/P2019123100667.htm

Jones, Rachael M., Susan C. Bleasdale, Dayana Maita, and Lisa M. Brosseau. “A Systematic Risk-Based Strategy to Select Personal Protective Equipment for Infectious Diseases.” American Journal of Infection Control 48, no. 1 (January 1, 2020): 46–51. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ajic.2019.06.023.
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* Timeline summaries at the top of the page come from a variety of sources:, including The American Journal of Managed Care COVID-19 Timeline (https://www.ajmc.com/view/a-timeline-of-covid19-developments-in-2020), the Just Security Group at the NYU School of Law (https://www.justsecurity.org/69650/timeline-of-the-coronavirus-pandemic-and-u-s-response/), the “10 Things,” daily entries from The Week (theweek.com), as well as a variety of newspapers and television programs.

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