From vaccines to Trump: top 5 coronavirus stories of 2020

2020 was a year unlike any other in U.S. history. Before we embark on 2021 and the promise that it brings, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s content curation desk is taking a look back at the most impactful stories of 2020 and their effects on Georgia and the rest of the nation. Today’s topic: Coronavirus

5. University of Alabama outbreak

As college students returned to campus in late August amid the pandemic, administration officials at the University of Alabama ordered their professors to keep quiet about an outbreak that infected more than 500 during the first week of classes.

Faculty in multiple departments said they received instructions not to discuss the situation in classrooms and to keep students in the dark if they became aware of anyone contracting the virus.

“Do not tell the rest of the class,” the email read, the Beast reported.

Face masks and social distancing, the email read, would mitigate any exposure risk if infected students were actually in the classroom. The memo also warned faculty not to post anything about the matter on social media, claiming that would violate federal privacy laws.

At the time, many students were reportedly disregarding state mask mandates, holding parties and packing the bars at night.

Elsewhere across the country, universities cracked down on gatherings, suspending hundreds of students for violations of coronavirus safety measures and banning large parties on and off campus.

4. Race for a vaccine

In December, as the United States surpassed record daily death tolls and hospitalizations, the Food and Drug Administration gave Pfizer emergency use authorization to distribute its vaccine nationwide, becoming perhaps one of the most pivotal moments in the ongoing fight against the coronavirus pandemic.

Days later, the largest vaccination campaign in American history began as critical health-care workers received the first shots. Even more good news came the following week when an FDA advisory panel voted to approve Moderna’s vaccine, and the FDA granted emergency use authorization.

In May, President Donald Trump had announced a new coordinated plan to develop a vaccine against the coronavirus called “Operation Warp Speed.”

Trump compared the program to the Manhattan Project, which delivered nuclear weapons during World War II, as he urged states to relax their virus restrictions and allow businesses and schools to reopen.

By early November, American drugmaker Pfizer announced that its vaccine was more than 90% effective at preventing COVID-19 and filed an emergency use application with U.S. regulators.

In the first week of December, Britain became the first country to authorize the rigorously tested vaccine and began dispensing shots within days — a historic step toward eventually ending the outbreak that has killed more than 1.7 million people around the globe.

3. Gov. Brian Kemp faces pressure

Near the start of the pandemic in March, Gov. Brian Kemp had banned many large gatherings and ordered a shelter in place for the “medically fragile” to stem the spread of the coronavirus, but he refused to use his emergency powers to impose stiffer restrictions, which led to a patchwork of local regulations around the state.

Kemp faced mounting pressure as more expansive actions were being taken by public health officials and city leaders, including a shelter-in-place order issued by Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms.

Aside from Atlanta’s restrictions, many densely populated suburbs and midsize cities around Georgia limited restaurants to takeout only and shut down restaurants, bars, nightclubs, barbershops and salons. Several local governments imposed curfews.

By early April, however, the Republican governor reversed course and ordered a statewide shelter-in-place order across Georgia and signed an order to close k-12 schools for the rest of the academic year.

He said his decision was triggered by “game-changing” new projections on the disease’s spread in Georgia. He also said he was informed of new data that this virus “is now transmitting before people see signs.”

“Those individuals could have been infecting people before they ever felt” symptoms, he said. “We didn’t know that until the last 24 hours.”

By the end of the month, Kemp had lifted some of the restrictions, saying his shelter-in-place order and social distancing measures were starting to slow the outbreak.

Around this same time, Kemp found himself at odds with Trump, who said he “totally” disagreed with the governor’s decision to roll back coronavirus restrictions and allow shuttered businesses such as nail salons and barbershops to reopen.

The split between the two allies came as a surprise to Kemp’s administration and just a day after the president praised the governor’s response.

Saying it was “just too soon” to let tattoo parlors, bowling alleys and other shuttered businesses reopen, Trump’s rebuke undermined Kemp’s aggressive strategy to restart Georgia’s struggling economy.

Restaurants, theaters and private social clubs were allowed to reopen April 27 if they complied with specific social distancing and sanitation mandates.

2. Relief for Americans

In late March, Trump signed the CARES Act — a $2.2 trillion coronavirus rescue bill to help mitigate the impact of the ongoing pandemic.

It was the largest economic bailout legislation in U.S. history.

The measure provided $1,200 direct payments to millions of Americans, bolstered unemployment benefits, offered loans, grants and tax breaks to businesses large and small, and sent billions more to states, local governments and the nation’s all-but-overwhelmed health care system.

The stimulus dwarfed prior Washington efforts to take on economic crises and natural disasters, such as the 2008 Wall Street bailout and President Barack Obama’s first-year economic recovery act.

The bill became law after days of tumultuous negotiations and partisan eruptions in the House and Senate. House Democrats twice voted to block the bill to seek further add-ons and changes, and several GOP senators put up a fight to delay the legislation over a proposed increase to unemployment insurance, which they wanted capped.

Meanwhile across the country, wary Americans continued to face layoffs and growing financial strain as businesses shuttered and orders to stay home amid the outbreak remained in effect.

1. President Donald Trump hospitalized

In early October, Trump spent three days at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center after testing positive for the coronavirus.

No other first-term president running for reelection had ever suffered such a serious health setback so close to an election, according to reports.

Against the advice of his doctors, Trump briefly left the facility in a motorcade to wave to supporters outside the hospital.

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

During his stay, the president was treated with multiple doses of the antiviral drug Remdesivir and the steroid dexamethasone.

Trump walked out of the hospital under his own strength and later boarded Marine One, which delivered the president back to the South Lawn of the White House.

Trump went on to participate in the first presidential debate with Joe Biden on Oct. 15 in Miami, where the candidates were separated by plexiglass.

A day earlier, first lady Melania Trump revealed that she had also tested positive at the same time as the president, as well as their son Barron, who tested positive on a second test but did not exhibit any symptoms. Later, a third test showed he was negative.

AJC political correspondent Greg Bluestein contributed to this report.

Other stories in the series

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