On March 6, 2020, the University of Washington became the first university in the U.S. to announce a move to remote instruction and work in an effort to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Here’s a look back at the past year, from the perspectives of how the UW community adapted and the impact the UW’s researchers had in response to the virus in our state, the nation and around the world.
This timeline could not possibly include all the work by UW researchers during the pandemic in 2020. For more stories related to the pandemic, you can visit the UW News website, the UW Medicine Newsroom and our COVID-19 media coverage page.
Before the first case in the U.S.
We begin this timeline with a story published in September 2020. Why? It chronicles how several scientists from the University of Washington and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center tracked the novel coronavirus in Seattle back in January 2020, even before any COVID-19 cases had been diagnosed in this country.
The UW Medicine Virology Lab was also starting to prepare to test for COVID-19 infection. “Our opinion was, this is probably not going to be a problem, this is probably going to be a waste of our effort and some money, but we owe it to the people of our area to be prepared,” said Dr. Keith Jerome, director of the lab.
Map tracks the virus from the start
In early February, beginning when Washington had a single case of the novel coronavirus, UW geographer Bo Zhao had already created an interactive map tracking the spread of the virus across the world. He continues to update it.
Coronavirus ‘spike’ holds clues
Research was already well underway in February to decipher how the novel coronavirus attaches to and gains entry into cells. Scientists from the UW School of Medicine and Fred Hutch analyzed the spike architecture and its mechanics to locate the virus’s vulnerabilities.
Green light to test for COVID-19
The UW Medicine Virology Lab got the green light from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Feb. 29 to start testing patient samples for SARS-CoV-2.
Classes and work go online
The UW announced March 6 that, starting Monday, March 9, classes would no longer meet in person. At the same time, the university made Zoom available to all current students, faculty and staff to conduct UW business in a remote environment.
Finishing the quarter online
Giving her final exam review from her kitchen table with her 12-year-old Chihuahua on her lap wasn’t how LaShawnDa Pittman, assistant professor of American ethnic studies, saw winter quarter 2020 coming to a close. But for Pittman and many other instructors, that’s how the last weeks of winter quarter played out.
Anti-Asian racism on the rise
Asian Americans in Seattle and elsewhere reported an increase in occurrences of discrimination and racism even before the novel coronavirus, which originated from Wuhan, China, took a strong foothold in King County. Steve Goodreau, a professor of anthropology at the UW, offered his expertise on the intersection between discrimination and health crises to Crosscut for this story in March.
Risk to essential workers
More than 14 million workers face exposure to infection once a week in the workplace, according to a study by Marissa Baker, an assistant professor in the UW School of Public Health. Her analysis pointed to an important population that needed — and continues to need — protection as COVID-19 spread across the U.S.
Predicting the course of the virus
One of the first, and still one of the most widely cited, COVID-19 models was developed by scientists at the UW Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. In this story from March, Wired detailed the work that went into the model and how hospital systems, like UW Medicine, used the projections to help prepare for the surge in patients.
‘Unprecedented’ speed of research may set new standard
Dr. Peter Rabinowitz, professor of environmental and occupational health sciences at the UW, spoke to Newsweek in March about the “unprecedented” speed of research and public health action, saying “it does set a new standard for reacting and responding to infectious disease outbreaks.” Nicole Errett, a lecturer in the same department, added that it’s “hugely impressive” how fast the vaccine clinical trials began after the disease emerged.
Studying immune response to COVID-19
Dr. Helen Chu, a UW Medicine infectious diseases expert and researcher, started two studies in her lab looking at different immune responses to COVID-19 to figure out how the human body might overcome the disease.
Study on social isolation goes national
In March, Jonathan Kanter, a research associate professor of psychology at the UW, and psychology graduate student Adam Kuczynski began studying how King County residents were dealing with the social isolation aspects of the pandemic. By April, the public response to their study was so overwhelming that the team expanded the study to the entire country.
Visiting ‘just one friend’
In one of UW News’ most read stories of the year, a team of researchers explained the harm in visiting “just one friend” during the pandemic. The team, led by Steve Goodreau, professor of anthropology, and Martina Morris, professor emeritus of sociology and statistics, illustrated how fast a community of people becomes connected — and at risk of spreading the coronavirus — when each household establishes a social connection with one other household.
Teaching and learning from home
The switch to a remote learning environment brought with it many challenges — for students and instructors — and many found creative ways to adapt. From filming instructional labs to sending students kits to conduct fieldwork, this story and video detail the ways that some instructors taught their classes in the new environment.
Antibody testing begins at UW Medicine
In April, the UW Medicine Virology Lab announced plans to start processing thousands of COVID-19 antibody tests to help scientists understand more about the deadly virus and its spread. This test allowed people to find out whether they had previously contracted COVID-19 and developed antibodies, and gave researchers a better sense of the infection’s history and prevalence.
Coronavirus herd immunity
Once it became clear that measures would not succeed in containing or eliminating the virus, Carl Bergstrom, professor of biology at the UW, and Natalie Dean of the University of Florida wrote in a New York Times op-ed that waiting for herd immunity to build solely based on infections would result in a “catastrophic loss of lives.”
“(A) very large number of people must be infected to reach the herd immunity threshold required. Given that current estimates suggest roughly 0.5 percent to 1 percent of all infections are fatal, that means a lot of deaths,” the researchers wrote.
Face masks required
On May 18, King County directed people to wear face coverings in most public settings. As more information about how the coronavirus spreads was revealed through research, the recommendations for masking and other public health guidelines evolved. Hilary Godwin, dean of the UW School of Public Health, explained in this video how face coverings help mitigate the spread of the virus.
Later, in June, Gov. Jay Inslee announced a statewide order for everyone to wear a face covering when out in public. Dr. Chloe Bryson-Cahn from Harborview Medical Center explained in this video interview how face masks help prevent the spread of COVID-19
The double pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic not only has had a disproportionate impact on communities of color, but the U.S. has also seen an escalation in racial discrimination and heightened awareness of that discrimination. On June 6, thousands of doctors, nurses, health care workers and public health experts from the University of Washington and other medical institutions turned out in downtown Seattle to demand an end to systemic racism. The march was led by Dr. Estell Williams and Edwin Lindo of the UW School of Medicine.
Is the air getting cleaner amid COVID-19?
With fewer people commuting to work, a question arose early in the pandemic: Is there less pollution in the air? Julian Marshall and Bujin Bekbulat in the UW Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering dug into the data to find out. Their results, which were peer reviewed and published in January 2021, show that some pollutant concentrations were reduced and then returned to expected levels, while other pollutant concentrations were higher than expected or stayed the same.
For the first time ever, all three UW campuses came together for a combined commencement celebration, which was held online. UW News spoke with Sara Griggs, who has led the UW Office of Ceremonies event for 20 years, to talk about the unprecedented ceremony.
A misinformation perfect storm
At the UW Center for an Informed Public, tracking the spread of misinformation and disinformation is a top priority. By July, false information regarding the pandemic was rampant. As demands for racial justice were playing out all over the country and the 2020 election was ramping up, the result was a perform storm, said center co-founder Kate Starbird in the UW Department of Human Centered Design & Engineering.
The science behind masks
As mask mandates became more widespread in the summer, new science showed how effective they are at preventing transmission of COVID-19 — and loss of life. Ali Mokdad and colleagues with the UW’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation did a meta-analysis of mask studies and found if 95% of people wear cloth masks when they’re out and interacting with other people, it reduces transmission by at least 30%.
Enforcement of mask mandates critical to their success
Dr. Vin Gupta, a pulmonologist with the UW Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation who has since become a regular on national newscasts, co-wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post with Miami Mayor Francis Suarez emphasizing the importance of mask mandates and their enforcement.
Hope for preventing reinfection
A study by researchers at the UW School of Medicine and Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center provided hope to people who have survived a COVID-19 diagnosis: Evidence suggests that antibodies protect against reinfection.
UW begins testing program for students, faculty and staff
With assistance from the Seattle Flu Study, the UW began enrolling members of its community in a voluntary testing program to monitor symptoms and activities, and to get access to COVID-19 tests if necessary. The Husky Coronavirus Testing program launched on Sept. 24 and had almost 19,000 people enrolled as of Feb. 22.
Hotels and homelessness
King County repurposed hotels in Seattle, Bellevue, Renton and SeaTac as housing for people experiencing homelessness. The result, according to a UW study led by Rachel Fyall, associate professor in the Evans School of Public Policy & Governance, and Gregg Colburn, assistant professor in the Runstad Department of Real Estate, was limiting the spread of COVID-19 as well as improving overall health and stability for those who moved indoors.
Pandemic isolating older adults
While the pandemic hasn’t been easy for anyone, one group that has experienced a significant amount of hardship is older adults. A study led by Clara Berridge, assistant professor in the School of Social Work, found that older adults throughout Washington are increasingly isolated and challenged by an even greater reliance on technology.
1 million tests
The UW Medicine Virology Lab tested its millionth sample in late October for the presence of the novel coronavirus. As of this writing, the lab had recently surpassed 2 million samples tested, with about 6% showing presence of the virus.
Preserving scientific integrity
The UW joined Johns Hopkins University for a symposium on preserving the scientific integrity in the development of COVID-19 vaccines. The event brought together experts including Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; Michele Andrasik of the UW School of Public Health; and Dr. Larry Corey of the UW School of Medicine; as well as prominent journalists who have been covering the pandemic.
Worse than the flu
A study led by Dr. Natalie Cobb, a UW Medicine physician in pulmonary, critical care and sleep medicine, put to rest the idea that COVID-19 was similar in severity to influenza. One key finding of the study was that COVID-19 patients had an in-hospital death rate of 40%, versus 19% for influenza patients. This higher mortality rate was independent of the patients’ age, gender, co-occurring health conditions, and severity of illness while in the ICU.
Washington launches ‘WA Notify’ app
With help from UW researchers, the Washington State Department of Health launched an app that would notify users if they have been exposed to COVID-19 — while maintaining privacy.
Promising vaccine efficacy news
Pfizer released an early analysis of its vaccine and reported that a course of two shots was more than 90% effective at preventing infection. Dr. Vin Gupta of the Institute for Health Metrics & Evaluation talked to KUOW about his cautious optimism.
First vaccine approved for emergency use authorization
Pfizer’s vaccine was approved for emergency use authorization by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Friday, Dec. 11, and started shipping across the country shortly thereafter. UW Medicine was among the first sites in the state to receive doses of the vaccine.
Vaccines arrive at UW Medicine, first doses administered
The first COVID-19 vaccines arrived at UW Medicine on Monday, Dec. 14. The first dose was administered to frontline health care workers the next morning. As of March 4, UW Medicine has administered more than 100,000 COVID-19 vaccine doses.
Read a related story from The Seattle Times
Communities hit by COVID-19 the hardest brace for vaccine
Public health officials face hurdles to get vaccines out to people who are both wary of the vaccine and have been disproportionately hit by COVID-19. According to the UW Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, Mexicans, Central Americans and other Latinos in Washington are six times more likely to die from the virus.
Clinic treats COVID-19 long-haulers
Harborview Medical Center opened a new clinic in May to treat people who are still dealing with COVID-19 symptoms, weeks or even months after their diagnosis. Of the 24 million people in the U.S. who have contracted COVID-19, up to 2 million might be dealing with symptoms that have persisted for months. Since its opening, the clinic has seen a multifold increase in patients seeking care.
School of Nursing hosts vaccine boot camp
The UW School of Nursing put together a vaccine “boot camp” for students to learn how to administer COVID-19 vaccines at the growing number of mass vaccination sites.
Dentists part of the vaccination effort
As the vaccine supply expanded, dentists and hygienists in Washington planned to help immunize patients. Dr. Gary Chiodo, dean of the UW School of Dentistry, and Dr. Sara Gordon, professor of oral medicine at the UW, were quoted in this Seattle Times story on that effort.
COVID-19 infections higher in pregnancy
The COVID-19 infection rate among pregnant women was estimated to be 70% higher than in similarly aged adults in Washington state, according to a new study led by Dr. Kristina Adams Waldorf, professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the UW. “The higher infection rates in pregnant patients, coupled with an elevated risk for severe illness and maternal mortality due to COVID-19, suggests that pregnancy should be considered a high-risk health condition for COVID-19 vaccine allocation in Phase 1B all across the United States,” Adams Waldorf said.
Pharmacist-administered vaccines have UW roots
As UW President Ana Mari Cauce wrote in her blog, for many Americans the only way to get a vaccine was once at a doctor’s office or hospital. Then, in the 1980s and ’90s, that changed — in large part due to the work of faculty members in the UW School of Pharmacy and the UW School of Public Health. “Now, our pharmacy and public health colleagues are tackling the problem of vaccinating for COVID-19,” she wrote.
Equitable vaccine distribution
Seattle will use a map developed by Esther Min and colleagues in the UW Department of Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences to help choose future mobile vaccine delivery campaigns and pop-up vaccine clinics as well as future mass vaccination sites, to ensure equitable distribution.
Preventing future pandemics
Scientists want to build a system to monitor for new viruses. The system would require significant financial investment, notes Dr. Alex Greninger of the UW School of Medicine, as well as broad collaboration across the health care system.