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Two Years Ago Today: First Confirmed Case Of COVID-19 Reported In Illinois

CHICAGO (CBS) -- Two years ago today, Illinois reported its first case of COVID-19; the patient was a woman in her 60s who had recently returned from Wuhan, China, where the virus was first reported.

The case was only the second confirmed instance of COVID-19 in the United States at the time. Since then, 70.2 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID (the real number is higher because most positive rapid tests are not reported.) More the 862,000 have died, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Both numbers are by far the highest in the world.

In Illinois, 2.7 million people have contracted COVID-19 and about 33,600 have died, according to state health department data.

The first Illinois COVID patient, had traveled back from China to Chicago on Jan. 13 but she wasn't showing symptoms then, CBS 2's Marissa Parra reported at the time. A week and a half later, she was put in quarantine. She had shortness of breath and a fever when she arrived at the AMITA Health St. Alexius Medical Center emergency room in Hoffman Estates and was quickly placed in isolation, officials said. Her condition was described by doctors then as good.

The CDC said she did not take public transit while in Chicago and that she barely left her home. It was three to four days after being home that the woman started feeling symptoms and called her doctor. She was taken to a hospital and was immediately tested and quarantined.

Her husband became infected a few days later, making his case the first documented human-to-human transmission in the United States.

CBS 2's Chris Tye spoke with some of those who treated that patient. Frontline medical staff here call it the singular "oh my God" moment of their careers.

Vaccines were a year away, and we didn't know if this pandemic was going to be measured in weeks, months, or years.

In January 2020, rapid COVID tests took days. Every test went through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, and Illinois' first patient went through these doors in Hoffman Estates.

Dr. Lynwood Jones was among those who treated the woman at St. Alexius.

Jones: "It was really tough trying to damp down the fear, as well as trying to take care of the patients."

Tye: "Was the fear in your building during that stretch of time on behalf the other patients, the staff, the federal agents there? Who was scared exactly?

Jones: "Yes. Everyone, everyone. Even we had the media would come here - the media didn't want to come into our building."

Their building wasn't ready. But no building was.
Isolation units and negative airflow rooms were cobbled together as the CDC began camping out in St. Alexius' basement.

"We needed scotch tape, bubble gum and masking tape. It was terrible," said Dr. Jones. "We weren't prepared at that time, and I don't think anyone in the world was prepared for what we were going to see."

Both recovered from the illness.

"We actually had a party — almost 'ding-dong, the witch is dead' type of thing - our COVID patients were gone, we were feeling good - 'Oh we did a great job' - and everybody was patting themselves on the back," Jones said. "It was euphoric in February - until the hammer hit in the spring."

Six weeks later, the United States was in a lockdown, as health care workers scrambled desperately to control the virus.  Personal protective equipment, like masks and gowns were in short supply. Items like hand sanitizer, disinfecting wipes and even toilet paper were hard to find.  Only essential businesses were allowed to remain open.  Workers scrambled to set up remote offices. Schools were closed, forcing students into remote learning for the remainder of the school year.

Unemployment exploded as businesses, especially restaurants, were forced to lay off workers.

"As this epidemic has progressed, we have had to make some hard decisions," Gov. JB Pritzker said at the time. "To avoid the loss of potentially tens of thousands of lives, we must enact an immediate stay at home order for the state of Illinois."

In the 24 months since that first case — 2,837,860 cases have been identified – about 22 percent of the state's population.

Now in the third year of a global pandemic, the latest wave of COVID-19--the Omicron variant--sent infections soaring once again this month. But vaccines helped keep many from developing severe symptoms, health experts said.  However, the variant still hit the unvaccinated population hard and hospitalizations and deaths rose once again. In the Midwest, the worst of the Omicron surge has passed.

Still, at this moment, the question remains - what's next?

"Every time you think it's going away, it rears its ugly head again," said Dr. Jones.

The doctor said what stands out most is the shift from fear to anger. While there are still needs, like more testing and more help with treatment, the biggest change is the mentality and thinking around the pandemic.

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