US reaches grim milestone of 500,000 Covid deaths
No other country has reached a death toll as high as the US
More than 500,000 people in the US have died from Covid-19, Johns Hopkins University data shows, making it the first country to mark such a milestone in the coronavirus pandemic.
And each single figure represents a human life that was part of American society: members of families, communities, hospitals, nursing homes, grocery stores, schools, restaurants and elsewhere.
In their wake, they leave behind an enormous amount of mourning in a deadly pandemic that charges on each day.
Just sadness. It didn't have to be this bad.
Dr Tara Smith
No other country has a death toll as high as the US. The second highest is Brazil's with more than 245,000 fatalities, then Mexico at almost 180,000. The US also leads with the most recorded coronavirus infections.
The milestone comes about a year after the first confirmed death in the US from the virus in late February 2020.
"After so many waves and people dying and people not caring and people not believing in it, I think exasperation is more the word than what it was a year ago, which is shocking," Dr Calvin Sun, an emergency medicine physician based in New York, told The National.
The climbing death toll is nearing the one reached in the 1918 flu pandemic, when about 675,000 people died.
The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington projects the nation will pass 600,000 deaths in mid May. And it is likely that the current death toll and case counts in the US are underestimates.
"There are plenty more signposts that we have to prepare for because, you know, we're still not out of it," Dr Sun said.
Amid the high number of fatalities, the US does not lead the world in the rate of deaths per capita.
It stands fifth in a ranking of Covid deaths for every 100,000 people, behind the UK, the Czech Republic, Italy and Portugal, according to Johns Hopkins University.
Meanwhile, the pandemic in the US is improving from the worst peak in December and January, when hospital admissions peaked at 132,000 nationally and there were several single-day death tolls of about 4,000.
US coronavirus cases, hospital admissions and deaths are all on the decline this February while the White House Covid-19 task force continues to advise caution.
It says current levels are still at the same level as the nation's second peak, in the summer of 2020, and several more highly transmissible variants are spreading uncontrolled.
"It didn't have to be this bad," Dr Tara Smith, professor of epidemiology at Kent State University College of Public Health, told The National in an email. "And I'm not sure we've learnt the lessons from last spring and fall, as places remove restrictions on masks and distancing too early once again."
The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported on Friday that there were more than 1,500 cases of variant strains recorded nationally.
The country has had cases of all three “variants of concern” as labelled by the World Health Organisation (WHO), as well as a possible homegrown one in California.
Some have been found to be more transmissible, sparking concerns of a possible additional peak of cases if there is further spread.
The threat of variants is behind the urgency of a massive vaccination campaign in the US.
"I'm hopeful that we'll increase vaccination rapidly in the coming months," Dr Smith said. "I'm concerned about the spread of variants and the monkey wrench they might play in further delaying a move back towards 'normal', which is why I also hope that people will continue to mask and distance until it's more clear that we're really out of the woods."
A little over two months into a rocky launch under the Trump administration, the new government under President Joe Biden has increased inoculations to more than a million daily, according to a vaccine tracker from Bloomberg News.
The road to half a million deaths
The US reached 400,000 deaths on Donald Trump's last day in office, on January 19.
On that same day, then president-elect Biden and vice president-elect Kamala Harris held what was largely regarded as the first national ceremony of mourning.
"To heal, we must remember," Mr Biden said in remarks before holding a moment of silence that night.
Four hundred lights off the Reflecting Pool by the Lincoln Memorial in Washington were lit to memorialise the 400,000 dead.
“For many months we have grieved by ourselves,” Ms Harris said that evening. “Tonight, we grieve and begin healing together.”
The sombre event also involved the participation of several monuments across the country, including the National Cathedral in Washington tolling its bell 400 times to mark the losses.
On Monday, February 22, Mr Biden will give remarks on the grim milestone of half a million dead along with Ms Harris, first lady Jill Biden and second gentleman Doug Emhoff, the White House said on Sunday night.
They will hold a moment of silence with a candle lighting ceremony. The National Cathedral also plans to toll its bell 500 times.
The pandemic began in the last year of Mr Trump’s presidency, and he publicly neglected the seriousness of the virus while privately acknowledging its true dangers.
Mr Trump contracted Covid-19 in October in the middle of a re-election campaign that involved several gatherings with few face coverings or social distancing.
The first Covid-19 death in the US was first reported to be a person in Washington state on February 29.
It was later discovered the first death was a young, healthy woman in California on February 6.
"There's been so many events, it'll make your head spin," Dr Sun said.
"It's so difficult for one person to really take it all in and really fathom, to truly understand it until 10, 20, 30 years to really dissect what's going on, and we're not even out of it yet a year later."
The first deaths came before the first surge took place mostly in the north-east region of the country and in major US cities.
New York City became the global epicentre of the pandemic in late March.
The US reached 100,000 deaths late in May, when New York had a grasp on its outbreak.
Cases and deaths rose in south-east US states over the summer, peaking in late June and July. The country hit 200,000 deaths in late September.
The US then shifted into a third coronavirus peak when cases in the Midwest and other rural US states overwhelmed hospitals, leading to further deaths.
The autumn peak became a worsening situation for the US in the holiday season.
The CDC advised Americans to not travel for Thanksgiving in late November or the winter holidays.
The advisories were heeded by many but the Transportation Security Administration recorded its highest travel numbers since March 2020.
The US reached 300,000 deaths in mid-December, before Christmas and the New Year. In a little over a month, another 100,000 people died.
It also took about the same amount of time to go from 400,000 in January to 500,000 deaths in February.
A peer-reviewed study by medical journal The Lancet found that at least 40 per cent of US Covid deaths could be attributable to Mr Trump's actions when the country's outbreak is compared to other G7 countries.
Updated: February 23, 2021 09:30 AM