One year ago—February 11, 2020—the Institute’s Health, Medicine and Society program brought together three experts for a panel called “Straight from the Source: Experts Discuss Novel Coronavirus.”

The disease that has since wracked the world had only been officially named COVID-19 earlier that morning. At that point, it had claimed more than a thousand victims in two dozen countries. Epidemiologists were clear-eyed about the contagion’s pandemic potential, among them the three experts on stage that day: Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Ron Klain, former White House Ebola Response Coordinator under the Obama administration and now President Biden’s chief of staff; and Anthony Fauci—before he became a household name.

Ruth Katz, executive director of the Health, Medicine and Society Program, introduced the panel. On this grim anniversary—one year from when there were only 13 total US cases, all of which were improving with minimal intervention—she reflects on what we knew then, and what we’ve learned during what she calls the “biggest public health challenge” the world has seen in the last 100 years.

During the panel, Dr. Messonnier suggested that the country could slow spread through “social distancing” (a term she had to define), with the hope of buying us some time in the fight against the virus. What are your thoughts on social distancing and how it was implemented?

I constantly have to remind people that this was a brand-new virus—never seen before. We had to learn along the way what worked and what didn’t work. But social distancing, wearing masks, spending time outside instead of inside, congregating with only small groups of people—these are public health tools that we learned relatively early on could make a difference in limiting the spread of the virus.

Read the full article about learnings a year after COVID-19 by David K. Gibson at The Aspen Institute.