Virus Briefing

A Farewell, for Now

In our final edition of the Virus Briefing newsletter, we offer parting thoughts from those who’ve covered the pandemic.

Bridget Ryan, an assistant nurse manager, and Christina Burke, a nurse, at Christiana Hospital in Newark, Del., in 2020. Their unit was dedicated almost exclusively to Covid patients.
Credit...Erin Schaff/The New York Times

On Jan. 6, 2020, The New York Times first reported on a mysterious “pneumonia-like illness” that sickened 59 people in Wuhan, China. Symptoms included high fever, trouble breathing and lung lesions, but Chinese health officials said there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission.

Two days later, Chinese scientists identified the source of the new disease: a previously unidentified coronavirus. Within weeks, the pathogen was sickening scores of people in Wuhan, and China took the drastic step of locking down the city, effectively sealing off its 11 million inhabitants from the world.

Then, time seemed to accelerate.

Seismic events began to take place, one after the next: Professional sports leagues around the world suspended seasons. Stocks plunged. Donald Trump cut off travel from Europe. The World Health Organization declared the virus a pandemic.

Soon, entire countries began shutting down. Popular tourist sites and metropolises across the world became ghost towns. By early April, authorities had told four billion people — roughly half of humanity — to stay home.

“If you look at the very beginning, we found ourselves in — at least in our memory — the unprecedented situation of the evolution of what would turn out to be one of the most devastating pandemics in more than a century,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, who helped lead the U.S. government’s response to the pandemic, told me this week. “That, at first, was complicated by the opaqueness of the Chinese authorities and letting the rest of the world know what was actually going on.”

In those initial days, there was so much we didn’t know — and so much speculation and misinformation — that The New York Times started a newsletter on March 2, 2020, to serve as an informed guide to the global outbreak.

“There was a fire hose of alarming information,” said Adam Pasick, The Times’s editorial director of newsletters and a frequent editor and occasional writer of this one. “We needed a way to help people understand a rapidly changing story that was affecting every single person on the planet.”

The Coronavirus Briefing began as a daily update that eventually went to more than a million readers a day, tracking the latest developments and offering expert advice about treatment and prevention. It was meant to be temporary. But it didn’t take long to realize that the pandemic was not going away quickly. Over the last three years, readers across the world opened the newsletter more than 300 million times.

“We thought that we were going to have a big burst of infections, and, like every other outbreak, it was going to peak, turn around, come back down and then, essentially, if not disappear, go to a low enough level that it didn’t bother anybody,” Dr. Fauci said. “And here we are three years later, into our fifth or sixth variant.”

As the virus evolved, so did the newsletter. We explored the pandemic’s effects on health care, education, politics, mental health, minority groups, workplaces, travel, relationships and families. Times reporters from across the world — in China, Brazil, India, Israel, Canada, Britain, Hong Kong and more — gave us on-the-ground reports of outbreaks.

We also covered the fault lines that the pandemic revealed and exacerbated. Our frequent conversations with Dr. Fauci took place as he was vilified by many who vehemently opposed the U.S. government’s lockdowns, mandates and vaccine efforts.

“The other lesson that to me was particularly impactful and painful, because unfortunately I found myself in the middle of it, was the extraordinary amount of divisiveness in our own country,” he said, “which, really, I believe, impeded an optimal response to the outbreak.”

“In this case, the common enemy is the virus,” he added. “And yet, if you look at what was going on in our own country, it looked like we were fighting with each other.”

Now, after three years, we’re pausing this newsletter. The acute phase of the pandemic has faded in much of the world, and many of us have tried to pick up the pieces and move on. We promise to return to your inbox if the pandemic takes a sharp turn. But, for now, this is goodbye.

Without a doubt, what I will miss most about these last three years is hearing from all of you. We’ve received tens of thousands of responses to our questions about your pandemic lives. You’ve shared heart-wrenching stories of illness and death as well as thoughts on a changing world and silver linings.

As I was reading your final submissions, many of you told me that it was stories from your fellow readers that helped get you through your darkest days.

As Michelle Hey from Chester, N.J., wrote: “Some gave me a chuckle, some gave me hope and others broke my heart. These vignettes taught me that my family and I were a few of millions experiencing the pandemic each in our own unique ways, just trying to keep our heads above water.”

Thank you for following along with us these last three years, sharing your stories and helping one another feel a little less alone.

Throughout the pandemic, we relied on a team of New York Times journalists to explain what was happening. Today, for our final edition, we asked some of them for their parting thoughts.

“The past three years of writing about Covid have been heartbreaking, disorienting, exhausting. Every time I thought we were done with the virus, it came back with another nasty surprise. But I also have renewed respect for the basic tenets of virology and immunology. We’ve learned that the coronavirus can be carried aloft in tiny aerosols, that infected people can have a range of symptoms and that while vaccines may not prevent reinfections, they will keep people out of hospitals. All of this is true of many other pathogens, and none of it should have come as a surprise.” — Apoorva Mandavilli, science reporter

“Nearly 4,000 American died just last week of Covid-19 — from a disease that did not exist four years ago. Worldwide, that figure is over 14,300 deaths, although the true number is certainly higher. Sixty-five million people are estimated to have long Covid. More people will get long Covid, and more people will die in 2023. Meanwhile, SARS-CoV-2 is continuing to evolve in surprising ways, and we are now increasingly aware of a number of potential pathogens in other animals. This story is not over, even if we want to look away.” — Carl Zimmer, science reporter

“Three years since this awful virus started spreading through our country, I’m struck by how far we have come and how far we have not. There are vaccines that reduce the risk of severe illness and death, antivirals that can help curb symptoms and a society that long ago returned to the mundane joys of in-person school, work and recreation. But dreams that once felt so attainable — herd immunity, a conclusive end to the pandemic — have faded. Covid, rather than becoming a past-tense plague, has remained a present-tense threat, even if it’s less of one than before, even if it’s one we don’t spend as much time thinking about.” — Mitch Smith, national reporter

“For me, one lasting lesson of the pandemic is how interconnected the world is. That goes for people, of course — we saw how quickly the virus can travel around the globe and how the emergence of a new variant somewhere can rapidly become a problem everywhere. But these connections go beyond our links with other humans. We saw pets and zoo animals catch the virus. We transmitted the virus to mink, which gave it to each other and then passed it back to us. The pandemic even altered larger ecosystems, as people stepped back from their normal routines. The past few years have driven home the message that infectious disease is truly a global problem — and will require global solutions.” — Emily Anthes, science reporter

“In writing about long Covid, I’ve been moved by the challenges that many people are facing as they struggle with symptoms that have upended their lives. I’ve also been struck by the energy and determination of the long Covid community to find answers that can lead to effective therapies and to share their experiences with other patients and with doctors and researchers. There is still a long way to go, but some hints are beginning to emerge, and I plan to continue keeping readers apprised of significant developments so that people can understand more about this condition and its implications.” — Pam Belluck, health and science reporter

In our final question to readers, we asked how the pandemic reshaped their lives. Thank you to everyone who wrote in.

“My husband’s Lewy body dementia took a turn for the worse in early 2020. He was in and out of the hospital from April until he died in October 2020. Because of Covid precautions, I was not allowed to be with him either at the hospitals or the care facilities. Advocating for him from afar was extremely difficult considering the overworked staff and facilities, but I did the best I could. After he died, I was unable to have a service for him, and I was unable to be hugged and comforted by family and friends. I still think about how things might have been easier on him through it all if I could have been beside him. That’s a sadness I will always carry with me, along with the memories of that awful year.” — Carol L., Maryland

“I was a senior in college when the pandemic hit. It feels like I’m in a completely different world now to where I was in 2020. Anger, disillusionment and anxiety riddled the lives of me and my friends as we watched our ‘role models’ at each others’ throats over inconsequential issues, while millions died and leaders profited. My friends and loved ones have been trauma-bonded through the experience of supporting each other when the system and leaders abandoned us. We’re cynical and have no trust in authority. But we’re here and fighting to find some stability and security.” — Meredith, Washington, D.C.

“In an unusual way, living in N.Y.C. at the beginning of the pandemic almost teetered on exciting. Banging pots and pans, sending one another letters or gifts and still showing empathy during the unknown. I later escaped to Texas, where it retrospectively felt like running from the eye of the storm to the crest of a tidal wave. Since then, I feel like I’ve become a shell of who I am. I gain anxiety at the mere thought of long-term exposure to the public. I’ve spent much of the past three years surrounded by four walls and persistent waves of depression. At times, I thought heavily about the repercussions of suicide for those around me. Gratefully, I’m still here today, and I now have my wife to remind me that life doesn’t have to be so scary.” — Eric, Austin, Texas

“As an Asian-American woman, my street smarts have morphed into constant vigilance when I’m out in public. I carry pepper spray and am always alert. That’s probably the hardest change, because it means I no longer feel safe in my hometown, and I’m not sure when or how that feeling will go away. My fear for my own safety has also supplanted my compassion and desire to help others, which is difficult to reconcile even now.” — Nelly, New York City

“It made me single. A 10-year relationship couldn’t rise above his enthusiastic embrace of anti-vaccine rhetoric and conspiracy theories.” — Carolyn, Phoenix

“In 2019, I was a long-term cancer survivor living a vibrant life. But Covid brought my life to a virtual standstill as a high-risk individual. My husband and I will have missed my son’s adolescence’s worth of school concerts, the family ethnic restaurant outings he loved and getting to know his friends. I lost the simple joy of taking my daughter and her friends to lunch, as no safe visits were possible through her four years of college. I am disappointed in how easily the fortunate and healthy have left behind those of us who are not.” — Ellen Kornmehl, West Newton, Mass.

“I have never, before or after, experienced the level of gratitude I felt about reconnecting with people I love as we first emerged from lockdown. Being with my friends and family ‘in 3-D’ — as opposed to on a flat Zoom screen — flooded me with a visceral sense of gratitude. I will always remember. The freedom to hug my adult children and siblings for the first time in many months was simply extraordinary.” — Joan Markoff, Sacramento

“I understood personal loss after losing my dad to Covid. I helped manage his care through phone calls with medical staff and FaceTimed with him during his two-month hospital stay. When he didn’t wake up after being put on the ventilator, we FaceTimed him daily and sang songs and told him the daily news to try to get through to him. We watched him pass away through a video stream. I felt so removed from his death. It was traumatizing. My family and friends helped me, but the biggest help was through the Covid Grief Network. I have more empathy for people grieving, and I try to be a support to those around me who have suffered a loss.” — Kim Burke, New York City

“Covid increased my circle of friends as we banded together to make 77,000-plus masks on ‘remote’ assembly lines to share with homeless shelters, the fire departments and others. My husband and I volunteered in the vaccine trials and at this point have had seven vaccines and boosters. We found ways to cope. We realized humans really are social animals and need each other. Zoom cocktail parties and funerals as well as celebrations and wakes on driveways. We rediscovered the joys of the outdoors.” — Linda Robertson, St. Charles, Ill.

“I was a budding anesthesiology resident when the Covid pandemic hit, and we were in the thick of it. There was no testing at the time, so we were stuck wondering whether we were going to contract this mystery disease, spread it among our peers and families. It was a terrifying time. Observing the burnout and mass retirements seen in our department has left lingering doubts in many of our minds about how our futures will look.” — Pooja Patel, San Diego

“Just today I stopped and sighed as I realized my life has been diminished by the pandemic. My heart is sore. We often tore each other apart, instead of appreciating everyone was suffering. We could have come out of this as a more united and compassionate species. We are capable and often exhibit such care for each other, but now I see how many hearts are too hardened to reach out again. But please, let’s try. Maybe we could all slow down, breathe and smile at one another whenever we can. At least we are still alive.” — Leah Sue Sullivan, San Diego

While the newsletter is coming to an end, The New York Times will continue covering the pandemic. Much of our reporting can be found here, and we’re still tracking the virus in the U.S. and around the world. We will also continue to cover the virus across many of our newsletters, including The Morning, the Evening Briefing, David Wallace-Wells and Well.

Thank you to the dozens of reporters and editors who contributed to this newsletter. Among them were a few who were extremely generous with their time and whose knowledge formed the backbone of this newsletter: Apoorva Mandavilli, Carl Zimmer, Mitch Smith, Keith Bradsher, Emma Goldberg and Tara Parker-Pope. Thank you.

As for me, I’ll be taking the lessons I’ve learned from the Coronavirus Briefing and applying them across The Times’s newsletters, particularly the inclusion of your voices in our coverage. Thanks for the last three years. Stay safe, and stay in touch. — Jonathan

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