COVID-19: An unprecedented year in Georgia

Georgians joined people around the world in an unprecedented year filled with uncertainty surrounding COVID-19. As health officials, leaders, and families spent 2020 navigating the deadly virus, journalists poured their time into reporting on the pandemic: facts about the virus, financial loss facing millions, and the hope we had for the future.

This is a compilation of newscasts to see the progress we've made from Feb. 2020 to March 2021.

Timeline of the COVID-19 pandemic in Georgia

In early February 2020, most Americans gave the distant COVID-19 in China little attention. However, within a few weeks it became the focus of everyday conversations.

Then-President Donald Trump said on February 6, 2020, "This is gonna end, hopefully it'll be sooner rather than later. I think there's a chance it could get worse, there's a chance it could get fairly substantially worse."

It's a thought many Americans had: COVID-19 will not last more than a few weeks, or months at the most. But more than one year later, our nation now knows better.

The first cases of COVID-19 and the shutdown

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp announced breaking news on March 2, 2020. The first two cases of COVID-19 had emerged in Fulton County. Within 10 days, Kemp announced the state's first death on March 12, 2020.

He said with sorrow, "it is with great saddness that we have to report the state's first patient death from COVID-19."

The governor also suggested closing "daycares, schools or school districts" in an effort to slow the spread of the virus. Many districts shut down temporarily that night, unaware that students wouldn't return to the classroom for months. When asked how long this pandemic may last, Kemp replied, "I don't really know that I can answer that question. We're going to take this one day at a time."

During March 2020, Georgia changed dramatically. Most people incorporated social distancing and a face mask into their everyday routines. Residents raced to the stores to panic-buy food, cleaning supplies and toiletries leaving shelves empty. Millions lost their jobs when businesses shut down, sending unemployment applications soaring. Churches, schools and other unused locations turned into COVID-19 testing sites. Some jail officials released non-violent inmates to free up space. Most importantly, U.S. health officials started to seriously look at a possible vaccine for the deadly virus.

As cases and hospitalizations grew nationwide and throughout our state, Kemp issued a statewide shelter-in-place on March 23, 2020 that rocked all of Georgia.

Officials stressed that the trajectory of the pandemic was up to the public. GEMA Director Homer Bryson explained on March 26, 2020, when "a hurricane or a tornado is coming. There is nothing we can do to stop that or prevent it. This is completely different. This is in entirely in the citizens' hands of our state."

Within one month, several Georgians started to experience loss and grief as the death toll went up. While every life lost is a different memory and legacy left behind, loved ones had the same message for others: take this virus seriously.

"My mother and I were positive for coronavirus. It's hard to hear especially after losing my dad from it. I just want people to understand it doesn't have to be like this," said Casey Collins on March 31, 2020.

Georgia begins the reopening process

On April 20, 2020, the governor started to reopen some businesses.

"The entities which I am reopening are not reopening business as usual," he announced. 

He outlined several requirements for businesses to reopen, like social distancing and total capacity limits. He faced serious backlash from leaders though, including then-President Trump. The governor defended himself, saying he reopened places like spas and barber shops, because other businesses with less contact had never closed to begin with.

State officials pushed back Georgia's primary election for a second time, after widespread concerns of catching COVID-19 at the polls. Originally set for March 24, and then May 19 the election was held on June 9, 2020. Voters faced long lines during the pandemic. 

Political analyst Lori Geary joined FOX 5 Atlanta for coverage of the primary election. She said, "I think it could be [a sign for what's to come in November]."  She says social distancing, sanitizing voting machines in between people, and the fact these were new voting machines all contributed to the chaos.

On July 14, a major milestone in the search for a COVID-19 vaccine. Researchers at Emory University reported preliminary data in the first phase one human vaccine trial showed that people who got the vaccine developed antibodies against the virus. The FDA fast-tracked its process for finding a vaccine in an effort to return as quickly as possible to some sense of normalcy in the U.S.

Legal fight between Georgia's governor and Atlanta's mayor

Gov. Kemp and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms found themselves in a pandemic power struggle in July. The governor was frustrated about the mayor's citywide mask mandate, as well as her Phase 1 reopening plan that kept restraurants closed. He filed a lawsuit against her, but Mayor Bottoms said the guidelines are recommended, not required.

In August, when many schools reopened with hybrid plans or in-person plans, many students and staff found themselves infected with COVID-19. The State Superintendant offered reassurance ahead of the new school year.

Richard Woods said on July 17, 2020, "the first day of school will be the first day of school. You can expect hiccups. You can expect challenges. But I guarantee you, your kids will be safe. Your teachers will be safe." But many teachers still entered the school year with concerns.

Samantha Mbozi was one of them. The Gwinnett County teacher said on August 4, 2020, "You cannot recover from the grave, and that's the bottom line for me." Once the school year started, several educators died from the virus, sparking protests among teachers who claimed some school districts weren't taking enough safety precautions.

Around Thanksgiving, Georgia cases and hospitalizations started to rise again. Eventually, data in the state reached record levels. Experts say the holidays directly contributed to this spike in our state, and nationwide.

They think people longed for gatherings with friends and family after a long and lonely year, and decided to take the risk during holidays to see other people.

The vaccine rollout begins in Georgia

On December 11, 2020, the FDA approved the country's first COVID-19 vaccine for emergency use: Pfizer. But Georgia's initial vaccine rollout was rocky. Many residents struggled to find an appointment near them at first. Older residents also faced a technology challenge, struggling to navigate websites in order to secure a vaccine appointment. Soon after, the FDA granted emergency authorization for Moderna's vaccine. Both Pfizer and Moderna require two shots to be most effective, creating another challenge for residents who couldn't find an appointment for their second dose. In February, a third vaccine was approved: Johnson & Johnson. This third approval became a game-changer for Georgia and the nation since it was a single-shot.

In mid-February, COVID-19 hospitalizations had dropped to levels before the holidays for the first time. Health experts say it was a sign that our state was improving, but that Georgia and the nation have a long way to go. While numbers are decreasing and vaccinations are increasing, health officials say now is not the time to let our guards down. Europe is facing a third wave, and health officials fear the U.S. could be in the same situation if we don't hang on for just a little longer and follow safety guidelines. However, with the Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson vaccine, Georgia is moving in the right direction.

President Biden announced in March 2021, "I will direct all states, tribes, and territories to make all adults, people 18 and older, eligible to be vaccinated no later than May 1."

So far in Georgia, eligible people include anyone 55 years and older or anyone with a serious health condition.

Editor's note: This story and video is based on events that occurred between February 26th, 2020 and March 15th, 2021.

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