Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post

The coronavirus pandemic in the voices of those who lived it

Glimpses into the lives that were changed by the covid-19 outbreak

Jon Gerberg/The Washington Post

There’s hope around the corner, but the pain is enduring. We won’t forget what we’ve gone through. 

The trauma that many have endured.

Mark Felix for The Washington Post

Hospitals across the country are overwhelmed with patients. Health-care workers are exhausted, worried but steadfast.

Hundreds of thousands are dead. Families are mourning in isolation. 

Essential workers are falling ill. And struggling to pay the bills.

Al Bello/Getty Images

Even as the arrival of vaccines bring hope, the health system is on the brink.

It’s been a year of pain. But also of resilience.

Al Bello/Getty Images

These are the stories of those who have felt the deepest impacts of this pandemic.

A novel coronavirus emerges in China, and what begins as a localized outbreak quickly starts to appear around the world. By the end of January, the first case is confirmed in the United States, and by the end of February, the first death is confirmed.

“The outbreak is at a critical stage, and we estimate an increasing number of infections during the 40 days of Spring Festival travel rush.”

Zhong Nanshan, the leader of a group of experts at China’s National Health Commission. The Spring Festival, signaling the dawn of a new lunar year, is the most important holiday on the Chinese calendar. Read more

“This is an evolving situation and, again, we do expect additional cases in the United States and globally.”

Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Disease, after the first confirmed case of covid-19 in the United States. Read more

“What we find is that this virus is going to be very difficult to contain. Personally, I don’t think we can do it.”

Jeffrey Shaman, an infectious disease researcher at Columbia University and co-author of a study that estimated that two-thirds of the coronavirus infections in Wuhan, China, before the imposition of travel restrictions Jan. 23 were transmitted by people who were not documented as infected. Read more

As New York and Seattle emerge as the first U.S. epicenters of the virus, pushing hospitals to the brink, states begin to shut down. By the end of March, 90 percent of Americans are under some form of stay-at-home orders, upending lives across the country and forcing difficult decisions for small-business owners and low-income workers.

Melina Mara/The Washington Post

“I’m really proud of this city, but this is week one. And I’m sure that in the beginning it might be a lot easier. And as time goes on, it’s going to get more challenging for people.”

San Francisco Mayor London Breed, after San Francisco and five other Bay Area counties were among the first in the nation to officially order residents to stay home to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. Read more stories from California’s lockdown

Whitney Shefte, Ray Whitehouse/The Washington Post

“I think people have a false sense of security. They think we don’t have any of these cases here, but it’s also the lack of kits.”

Ayne Amjad is a family medicine physician in Beckley, W.Va., the last state in the nation to have a positive case of covid-19. When she couldn’t find a coronavirus testing site for her patients, she found a way to open one in her own parking lot.

André Chung for The Washington Post

“I’m worried about my staff paying their bills. I’m worried about me paying my bills. I’m worried that, by the time the business is back open, the account is going to be entirely drained and we’re not going to be able to buy anything to sell.”

Jewel Murray, operations manager and bartender of The Gibson, a now-closed bar in Washington. Read more

“We’ve stopped greeting people with hello and how are you and changed it to, ‘Are you okay?’ And there’s always a pause, because even when I ask that to myself every day, I’m not sure.”

Annie Wrigg, library director in Pelican Rapids, Minn., recorded audio diaries for The Post’s "All Told" podcast from March 20 to 28 as she shut down her library and adjusted to her new reality. Full audio story

Ryan Christopher Jones for The Washington Post

“For all of us today, we are all in that dark narrow path as people, as a community, as a country, and we can’t see the end of it yet.”

The Rev. Timothy Cole of Christ Church Georgetown was the first confirmed coronavirus case in Washington, D.C. Read more

Chris Bergin for The Washington Post

“They held a press conference since she was the first to die in Indiana. They said we got to say goodbye over video. I guess it’s a nicer story. I don’t really blame them. I’d like to find a way to sugarcoat this thing, too, but I can’t. Anything good I could say about this would be a lie.”

Tony Sizemore describes the death of his partner, Birdie Shelton, as told to Eli Saslow. Read more

Tori Ferenc for The Washington Post

“It was supposed to be such a beautiful year.”

Tori Ferenc, a photographer based in London. Cherishing human connections in the time of coronavirus

In April U.S. deaths reach a grim milestone — 50,000 — and the reality of the threat to health and livelihood begins to sink in.

Whitney Leaming/The Washington Post

“This is — I want to say something positive … And the only thing I can say is that we’re very lucky to have dedicated people that care about others, because this is a disaster.”

Howard Greller, an emergency medicine physician at the SBH Health System in the Bronx. Greller kept a video diary to document the devastation and moments of relief he was experiencing.

Brittany Greeson for The Washington Post

“I tested positive for covid-19 and have a 15-year-old with chronic asthma. … I’m the one that brought it home to her. That’s tearing me up inside, because I know I brought it home.”

Tina Rhone, a Detroit bus driver. Michigan has among the highest number of covid-19 deaths in the country. Read more

Ray Whitehouse, Tim Matsui/The Washington Post

“It wouldn’t be so hard if it was just his death. It wouldn’t be so hard if it was just the virus. But it’s both.”

Yousef Shulman, whose uncle died from the coronavirus. Shulman’s pain was compounded by the decision he had to make to take his uncle off the ventilator in his final moments.

At the end of April and beginning of May, some states begin loosening their shutdown restrictions, as debates begin to rage over prioritizing health or the economy.

Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post

“We were waiting and waiting, then literally the wave happened.”

Marya Chaisson, a pulmonary critical care physician at Griffin Hospital in Derby, Conn. Read more

Audra Melton for The Washington Post

“Sometimes, I think about stopping and showing them one of the empty body bags I have in the trunk. You might end up here. Is that worth it for a haircut or a hamburger?”

Michael Fowler, Dougherty County coroner, on the reopening of Georgia. "I know the governor told us we could go ahead and reopen in Georgia. I understand businesses are hurting and people need to work. But I see these folks out and about and I wonder: ‘Is this another death I’ll have to pronounce?’ " Read more

Celeste Sloman for The Washington Post

“It reminded me of a scene from a mass casualty in Afghanistan. There were just patients everywhere. You couldn’t take more patients in there if you wanted to. It was really disturbing, actually, and they were doing a heroic job.”

Lt. Col. Guy Travis Clifton, on the flood of patients in the Elmhurst ER in Queens. Read more

Whitney Leaming, Ashleigh Joplin/The Washington Post

“How are our EMTs, our paramedics, our nurses, our doctors, our hospital staff, you know, the morgue technicians, the funeral directors who have dealt with so much death … how are we gonna be after all this?”

Yonkers paramedic AJ Briones, who said that at the height of the coronavirus crisis in New York, his team saw more cardiac arrests in 24 hours than it used to see in an entire month.

Maddie McGarvey for The Washington Post

“At some point, it’s easier to just walk away than it would be to take on more debt in order to survive this.”

Daniel Wright, who closed his five bars and restaurants in Ohio, laying off 150 employees. Read more

Jenn Ackerman for The Washington Post

“I apologize to God for feeling this way, but he made me how I am. I’m over this whole thing. I used to be an optimist, but I’m not anymore.”

Gloria Jackson, on being 75, alone and thought of as expendable, as told to Eli Saslow. Read more

Alice Li/The Washington Post

“When you’re alone like we are in a nursing home, you’re in charge of yourself, you can allow yourself to be despondent or worried and there isn’t a thing you can do about it.”

Rita Seiler, nursing home resident in St. Louis.

Some families are able to take advantage of the closeness of quarantine to spend more time together. But the infectious nature of covid-19 also means that being near loved ones in the hospital is not possible.

Keri Oberly

“This pandemic has taught me to slow down and focus on family. I find myself getting lost with my nephew in his imagination and love of outer space and turning to nature to heal in uncertain times.”

Photographer Keri Oberly. Read more

Andrew Mangum

″… we had only each other to turn an uneasy time into a magical one. I see that as part of my fatherly duties; to make time for adventure, and fun, and escapism. Dwelling on the negative feels unproductive.”

Photographer and father of three Andrew Mangum. Read more

Mason Trinca for The Washington Post

“The idea that he is in this condition and I cannot see him is heart-wrenching.”

Alyce LaGasse, a mother in Portland, Ore., whose coronavirus fears became real when her adult son fell ill in Utah. Read more

Widespread protests are held across the country after the killing of George Floyd on May 25, further emphasizing the unequal impact of the coronavirus pandemic on Black, Hispanic and Native American communities.

Eve Edelheit for The Washington Post

“I feel like I’ve failed my kids. I feel like I’d be better off dead.”

Sergine Lucien, a mother of two who lives in a Saab hatchback with her partner Dave Marecheau. The Florida family was living in a state of near homelessness. Coronavirus made it worse. Read more

“Normally, the things that we do don’t usually translate into some product or something that could save somebody’s life in their lifetime.”

Virologist Timothy Sheahan reflects on his work as he leads one effort to develop a coronavirus vaccine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Zoeann Murphy/The Washington Post

“What I want us to understand as Americans: We are not failing; we’ve been failed.”

Jitu Brown, the national director for the Journey for Justice Alliance and a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago on why so many more Black people are dying from covid-19. Read more

Jelani Rice for The Washington Post

“My scrubs may be the only reminder for others that I am a person and not just a skin color.”

Arturo Holmes, a urology resident, on why he wears his medical scrubs everywhere. Read more

Throughout the pandemic, essential workers have had to risk exposure to the virus. Those who were laid off were eligible for enhanced unemployment insurance in the form of weekly $600 payments provided by the Cares Act that expired at the end of July.

Erin O’Conner/The Washington Post

“I pray that none of us get sick.  We’re out there, we’re out there in it. … My job don’t stop. I gotta go to work rain, sleet or snow.”

As a sanitation worker in the District, Octavia French is considered an essential worker and does not have the option to stay home.

Melina Mara/The Washington Post

“Anyone who thinks we can be socially distanced when we work the land is full of baloney. The way it is designed, you are shoulder-to-shoulder.”

Javier Zamora, a farmer in Salinas, Calif. Read more

Erin Patrick O'Connor, Amber Ferguson/The Washington Post

“I’ve always believed that corona was real and that it was serious. It’s terrified me a little more when we started getting it. … We don’t have the luxury of being off.”

Briana Johnson, D.C. firefighter working at a coronavirus testing site.

Cindy Karp for The Washington Post

“My boss explained it to us. He said, ’Landscaping is essential. We’re going to keep working. ... By June, we were pretty much all sick, and we brought it back to our families.”

Alfredo, who asked that his last name not be used because, like his co-workers, he lacks legal status in the United States. Read more

Nick Oxford for The Washington Post

“Bills are still coming in, and I’ve got kids to take care of. I’m a disabled veteran, and I’ve been surviving on my benefits. I was doing pretty good before the outbreak happened, and it’s been pretty rough for me.”

John Hill, 41, a Macy’s distribution center employee who was laid off in March. Read more

Eve Edelheit for The Washington Post

“I’ve been here for 20 years, but I didn’t make it.”

Flaviana Decker on being laid off from her job waiting tables at Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort. Read more

“If I’m supposed to be getting $600 of unemployment a week and it’s been this long, they owe me at least $7,000.”

Daniel Vought, who found himself struggling against a broken unemployment system and barely getting by after losing his job at the start of the pandemic.

Students, teachers and families face tough decisions about the upcoming school year as cases continue to rise. Remote learning is particularly detrimental to lower-income students.

Salwan Georges/The Washington Post

“I don’t know what the world is going to look like when this is all over, if it’s over. I don’t know how to plan. Nobody can plan anything anymore.”

Chloe Bates, a college senior anxious about graduating into a recession. Read more

Stacy Kranitz for The Washington Post

“At my high school graduation, I told all my family I would go to community college. I was trying to better my future ... but the online classes really threw me for a loop. I knew I couldn’t do it.”

Paige McConnell, a college student who dropped out of school because she does not have good access to WiFi to take virtual classes. Read more

Walter Freeman/Associated Press

“I’ve decided to stay at home and do my classes online for fall. … I feel like the administration hardly acknowledges the fact that there are a lot of Black and Brown people in Syracuse, and by just opening the school, they are putting these communities at risk.”

Soumya Tadepalli, Oregon resident and Syracuse University sophomore on her decision not to attend school in person.

“For a lot of kids, like, school is a bright place where they get to see their friends, when they get to see their teachers who care about them, and now that’s just completely taken away. ”

High school teacher Eirik Nielsen teaches AP world history in a high poverty school in San Francisco, where the move to online learning hit his students hard.

Caitlin O’Hara for The Washington Post

“Do I risk opening back up even if it’s going to cost us more lives? Or do we run school remotely and end up depriving these kids?”

Jeff Gregorich, superintendent, on trying to reopen his schools safely. Read more

“I’m not really physically with them, but if I was actually physically with them, I would be like, this is painful and go to hug them, but I can’t.”

The Post asked parents and their kids to send us recordings documenting their experience with online learning. Read more

In September, the world crosses another milestone as it reaches 1 million deaths, with more than 200,000 of them in the United States. By October, as some flout public health guidelines amid growing politicization of the virus, the epicenter of outbreaks has now firmly shifted to rural areas that had initially avoided the worst impacts.

Scott McIntyre for The Washington Post

“I did not know how fast it could snatch somebody from your life. ... Seven days, and she was gone.”

Gregory Garrett of Coral Springs, Fla., who lost his wife, Shaquana, 35, and a mother of two Read more

“I was very close to my mom. I was even closer to my younger brother, Charlie. He was a loving brother like — like no one’s ever had.”

Jose Gonzalez hadn't heard from his mother in almost a month. When emergency workers broke down the door of her New York apartment, they found his brother already dead and his mother in her bed, struggling to breathe. Read more

James Cornsilk/The Washington Post

“I was working with probably four or five different singers, songwriters and everything from making records to touring either domestically or internationally. And then that all went away.”

Sergio Webb, professional guitarist and Nashville resident, who is among many musicians to lose his income after the pandemic led music venues across the city to shut down.

Ryan Christopher Jones for The Washington Post

“We don’t learn from our mistakes. ... And we certainly don’t learn from science.”

Paraic Kenny, a tumor geneticist turned disease detective and the director of the Kabara Cancer Research Institute at the Gundersen Health System in La Crosse, Wis. Read more

Brandon Thibodeaux for The Washington Post

“You see those bodies, you pray. Then you just keep going, keep going.”

Mariana Baldazo, a custodial worker at University Hospital in San Antonio. Read more

Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images

“No one that I spoke to there wasn’t aware of coronavirus, and wasn’t aware that there was a risk of them being there. … It was just a risk that they accepted.”

Andrew Crerar of Ashburn, Va., who atteneded the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. Read more

Salwan Georges/The Washington Post

“So who’s going to take care of me now?”

Nanssy Ismael, 13, lost both her parents to the virus. The Ismael kids — 13, 18, and 20 — are struggling to cope with grief, but also with how to keep a car running, pay bills and be a family. Read more

As the end of the year approaches, hope is on the horizon with the approval of two coronavirus vaccines, but cases and deaths continue to reach record highs and the economic pain continues as America looks ahead, wondering what changes 2021 will bring.

“I tell my wife and my kids, you know, that boredom has won the battle against fear.”

Emilio Gonzalez-Ayala, a pulmonologist, talking about the spike in cases in El Paso, Tex. Read more

Scott Dalton for The Washington Post

“I am not only out here for myself and my five kids. I am an outreach minister, and I am also trying to get a meal for a disadvantaged family.”

Katana Nicole Pittman, one of thousands waiting in cars outside a Houston stadium for a free Thanksgiving meal. Read more

Whitney Shefte/The Washington Post

“There’s only so much a person can do before they’re like, ‘I really need to go sneak off in a corner and drink or shoot myself.’ I don’t know. I’m that, you know, frustrated and confused,

Rosalyn Silvester, whose family lost their entire income when the pandemic took hold in the United States. Nine months later, they are still desperate for government aid.

Sean Rayford for The Washington Post

“Folks think maybe they saw an African American coming in, and they didn’t take them seriously. ... I don’t know. I just pray God will help me find a way to deal with the situation.”

Dennis Bannister of Columbia, S.C., who lost his daughter, Demi, and wife, Shirley, 20 days apart. Bannister, who was also infected but asymptomatic, pondered why the virus had hit his family so hard, and not just them, but so many African Americans? Read more

Leah Nash for The Washington Post

“I remember thinking to myself that Friday before he took his life, ‘This covid situation is bad, but it’s going to be okay. He’s going to be okay.’”

Ted Robbins, the father of Christian Robbins, 16, who killed himself a month into the pandemic. Read more

Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post

“I’m doing pretty good, but not good enough. ... I’m so damn weak.”

Rita Huebner, 83, who is recovering from covid-19. Read more

Jon Gerberg/The Washington Post

“I’ve seen approximately 10 people that I know, or that are family, friends or neighbors. Three, three unfortunately, have passed. There’s a lot of weight on the shoulders that we all carry.”

Jorge Silva Jr., who is registered nurse at St. Mary Medical Center in Apple Valley, Calif., a hospital so overwhelmed by coronavirus cases that patients are treated in the hallways.

About this story

Audio editing by Jessica Stahl. Video editing by Reem Akkad. Photo editing by Nick Kirkpatrick. Design and development by Irfan Uraizee and Matthew Callahan.

Originally published April 15, 2020.