Coronavirus NY: The doctor who diagnosed New York City's first COVID case

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Tuesday, March 2, 2021
The doctor who diagnosed NYC's first COVID case
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Lauren Glassberg interviews the doctor who diagnosed New York's first COVID case.

NEW YORK (WABC) -- Monday marks the one-year anniversary of the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in New York, and it comes as the first doses of the newly approved Johnson & Johnson vaccine are shipped out.

The first coronavirus victim identified in the state was a 39-year-old woman who tested positive for COVID-19 after returning from Iran.

At the time, Governor Andrew Cuomo released a statement saying, in part, "There is no reason for undue anxiety -- the general risk remains low in New York. We are diligently managing this situation and will continue to provide information as it becomes available."

Just 12 days later, Cuomo shut down Broadway as New York City became the global epicenter of the pandemic.

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The doctor who made the first diagnosis was Dr. Angela Chen, an emergency room physician at Mount Sinai Hospital.

"I looked at my nurse at the time, and said, 'I think this could be it,'" she said. "We really took every measure We checked ourselves, went through the donning and doffing of PPE, and said, you know, we better hope we get this right."

The patient arrived on February 29, and the confirmation of COVID came the next day. It was the beginning of a very difficult, painful year.

"Sometimes I don't feel like I truly experienced, I think, so I really repressed it," Dr. Chen said. "The year that we've had."

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It is a year in which more than half a million Americans have died, families ravaged.

Dr. Chen was separated from her own son, who went to live with his grandmother in New Jersey while she fought on the front lines. Visits were made through glass doors.

"We didn't touch him for about four, five months," she said.

It is one of the many sacrifices she made to care for strangers. She says those nightly applause from New Yorkers helped in those dark days.

"That really inspired a lot of us," she said. "It restored some of our faith in the general goodness and kindness of people."

While the vaccines give her hope, she says the one-year anniversary is a time to reflect. She remembers an email she wrote to her son a year ago, that she hopes he will one day read.

"'Mommy saw the first case of COVID, and I think we're in for a rough time,' is what I wrote him," she said. "If he is in a position to do so, to see how he can leave the world a little bit better by whatever means he can."

That is exactly what Dr. Chen has done, and what those on the frontline continue to do in the face of COVID.

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