ER Doctor Who Diagnosed First NYC COVID-19 Case Speaks Out 1 Year Later

Dr. Angela Chen recalls the day she diagnosed New York City's first coronavirus case. While Chen worked on the front lines, she sent her baby boy to stay with relatives for four months and missed several of his first milestones.

One year ago, Dr. Angela Chen diagnosed the very first case of COVID-19 in New York City. The emergency room physician at Mount Sinai Hospital says she’ll never forget the fateful day the pandemic came to the city.

“That was really the event that broke the dam, if you will, of everything that was to come,” Chen said. “With each question that they answered as we got their medical history, I kind of had the sinking feeling that this might be the first case that we had in New York. And it was scary.”

Patient zero was a 39-year-old health care worker who had just returned from Iran. She recovered from the virus. But that day in 2020, no one could have imagined how rapidly the deadly virus would spread or how drastically it would change everyone's lives.

Chen was concerned about bringing the virus home to her husband and baby boy.

“I was worried that if I didn’t put on my PPE correctly, it could potentially fail me and expose me and the rest of the people who I would come in contact with,” Chen said.

She sent her son away to stay with grandparents in New Jersey. For four months, she saw him only through windows and missed several of his first milestones.

“He took his first steps. He started talking. I was able to at least see that on video, but it does hurt a little bit that I wasn’t able to be there in person,” Chen said.

By the end of the month, there were 30,000 cases of the virus in New York City alone. The city had become the epicenter of the pandemic in the United States. A year after the first diagnosis, Dr. Chen is still working on the front lines.

“Back then, we couldn’t quite grasp what it would mean, but there were alarm bells going off that this is here,” Chen said.