Chandra Wilson talks 'Grey's Anatomy' season 18: COVID, Kate Walsh's return and more

"So this season is actually what we thought last season would have been."

With "Grey's Anatomy" now headed into its 18th season, not much surprises star Chandra Wilson these days.

That said, she told "Good Morning America" during a Zoom interview ahead of the premiere that she hadn't seen Meredith Grey's COVID coma coming at all.

The show's titular character, played by Ellen Pompeo, spent most of last season on a dream-like state, having reunions with dearly departed loved ones on a beach situated somewhere between life and death as she fought off the same virus that was ravaging the real world.

Meredith ultimately survived, but the storyline hit close to home for many viewers. In the United States, more than 43 million people have been diagnosed with COVID-19 and nearly 700,000 have died, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

"I remember all last season I kept saying, 'Once the season starts, we'll be talking about the past,'" Wilson, who plays Miranda Bailey, said. "But we were never talking about the past at any point during the whole season. It was so present in every episode."

The 52-year-old actress is one of the three original cast members, along with Pompeo and James Pickens Jr. (Richard Webber).

They have all been with the show since it premiered in 2005, and yet Wilson recalls a time she was completely shocked by the show. It was the season 2 episode which aired after the Super Bowl in which, as she put it, "we blew up Kyle Chandler."

As for a moment that tugged at Wilson's heartstrings, that would be the death of George O'Malley, played by T.R. Knight, in the season 5 finale.

"O'Malley was Bailey's baby," she said. "She named her son after him. I think that was the one that hit her the hardest."

"GMA" caught up with Wilson to discuss what fans can expect from "Grey's Anatomy" season 18, from how much COVID will play a part, to the new and familiar faces and even her thoughts on the show's eventual end.

Last season was so COVID-heavy, just based on what was happening in the world. How much of that is going to carry over into this season?

So this season is actually what we thought last season would have been. This season we start our world with the belief that everyone did what they were supposed to do and they got vaccinated and we got COVID under control and now we can take care of all the other things that happen in life that bring people into the hospital.

We're only like four episodes into the season, but even Bailey acknowledges, "Look, we've been through it this last year and a half and so it's gonna take us a minute to figure out how to get refreshed and renewed and figure out how to go forward."

I imagine there was a heaviness to having a whole season dedicated to a pandemic that was happening in real time. What was that like?

There was a lot of honoring, I felt, that was going on with telling stories to pay tribute to somebody's lived experience with COVID -- whether it was losing family or living with it or dealing with the the residual effects of it. That was really important.

But then just fundamentally taking care of each other on set and learning how to operate in zones. I feel like we went the whole season and didn't see people that were in certain zones because each zone was separated out, but that was for the benefit of not only the people in the zones, but their families too. We were one of the few shows that got through the season without having to shut down because of our protocols, because everyone collectively was not only taking their health seriously, but the health of everyone else. That was an honor to do it in order to get people back to work.

So that's the long answer to your question. Honored, at every level, to tell the stories and to be a part of telling the stories.

How has COVID changed Bailey -- and is it similar to how you feel at all?

I'm similar in that she and I are still both a little hesitant about the moving forward part. I was talking to someone earlier about celebrating my birthday this year and keeping it really low-key because although I'm out in the world ... I'm still on the cautious end of it. I'm fully vaccinated and doing everything that I'm supposed to do and wearing my mask, but I still keep going, "It's not time yet, it's not time." So Bailey, I think, is one of the characters that kind of gets to express that we can't just throw all caution to the wind yet. We still have protocols to follow and we still have things we need to be doing in order to have the best patient care that we can have at Grey Sloan.

One thing Bailey is having to do this season is fill a few spots after the hospital lost some doctors last year, be it to death, departures or switching specialties. How is she handling that responsibility as chief of surgery?

Bailey has certainly been fussing about people just feeling like they can leave whenever they want to and ... she's been giving people hell about it.

A new face we're meeting this season is Dr. Alan Hamilton, played by Peter Gallagher, who is described as someone from Meredith's mom Ellis' past. What has it been like with him on set so far?

I haven't had a chance to work with Peter yet. We've had hair and makeup visits, talking about New York a little bit, but for reasons I can't tell you regarding the storyline we haven't had the chance to work together yet.

Someone who's coming back this season is Kate Walsh as Dr. Addison Montgomery. Have you interacted with her at all? What's it been like to have her back?

Kate is in our third episode, and that's the episode that I just directed, so I had the honor and privilege of being able to bring Addison Shepherd back into the halls of "Grey's Anatomy," heels and all. That was very cool. It's one of those "Grey's" fan kind of moments where you know what you want to see and you know how you want to see her, and that's exactly what I tried to deliver in that episode.

We're now 18 seasons in and it seems like Ellen keeps talking about how the end is in sight. What has kept you coming back over the years and when do you think the show should end?

I know Shonda talks about having created an end so many times to where there's no point in creating an end anymore.

I enjoy our show immensely. I'm a fan of the show. I don't get like the pre-look or whatever, I watch it when everybody else watches it on Thursday nights. And I just enjoy our characters, I enjoy the story. That's on the fan end. And on the work end, I just love what I do. I love it. I'm never bored, I'm always intrigued. There's always something new about Bailey that I get to learn. She's always growing, and I love that. From the pilot episode she had kind of charted her course in life of what she wanted to do ... and we got to watch her make that achievement. And then that's not it, there's still more to do, and I think that's a great story.

"Grey's Anatomy" airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. ET on ABC.