US deaths surpass 500K, confirming virus’s tragic reach

Us Tops 500,000 Virus Deaths, Matching The Toll Of 3 Wars
Patrick Semansky

FILE - In this Oct. 27, 2020, file photo, Artist Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg walks among thousands of white flags planted in remembrance of Americans who have died of COVID-19 near Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium in Washington. Firstenberg's temporary art installation, called "In America, How Could This Happen," will include an estimated 240,000 flags when completed.

For weeks after Cindy Pollock began planting tiny flags across her yard — one for each of the more than 1,800 Idahoans killed by COVID-19 — the toll was mostly a number. Until two women she had never met rang her doorbell in tears, seeking a place to mourn the husband and father they had just lost.

Then Pollock knew her tribute, however heartfelt, would never begin to convey the grief of a pandemic that has now claimed 500,000 lives in the U.S. and counting.

“I just wanted to hug them,” she said. “Because that was all I could do.”

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After a year that has darkened doorways across the U.S., the pandemic surpassed a milestone Monday that once seemed unimaginable, a stark confirmation of the virus’s reach into all corners of the country and communities of every size and makeup.

“It’s very hard for me to imagine an American who doesn’t know someone who has died or have a family member who has died,” said Ali Mokdad, a professor of health metrics at the University of Washington in Seattle. “We haven’t really fully understood how bad it is, how devastating it is, for all of us.”

Experts warn that about 90,000 more deaths are likely in the next few months, despite a massive campaign to vaccinate people. Meanwhile, the nation’s trauma continues to accrue in a way unparalleled in recent American life, said Donna Schuurman of the Dougy Center for Grieving Children & Families in Portland, Oregon.

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At other moments of epic loss, like the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Americans have pulled together to confront crisis and console survivors. But this time, the nation is deeply divided. Staggering numbers of families are dealing with death, serious illness and financial hardship. And many are left to cope in isolation, unable even to hold funerals.

“In a way, we’re all grieving,” said Schuurman, who has counseled the families of those killed in terrorist attacks, natural disasters and school shootings.

In recent weeks, virus deaths have fallen from more than 4,000 reported on some days in January to an average of fewer than 1,900 per day.

Still, at half a million, the toll recorded by Johns Hopkins University is already greater than the population of Miami or Kansas City, Missouri. It is roughly equal to the number of Americans killed in World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War combined. It is akin to a 9/11 every day for nearly six months.

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The toll, accounting for 1 in 5 deaths reported worldwide, has far exceeded early projections, which assumed that federal and state governments would marshal a comprehensive and sustained response and individual Americans would heed warnings.

Instead, a push to reopen the economy last spring and the refusal by many to maintain social distancing and wear face masks fueled the spread.

The figures alone do not come close to capturing the heartbreak.

“I never once doubted that he was not going to make it. … I so believed in him and my faith,” said Nancy Espinoza, whose husband, Antonio, was hospitalized with COVID-19 last month.

The couple from Riverside County, California, had been together since high school. They pursued parallel nursing careers and started a family. Then, on Jan. 25, Nancy was called to Antonio’s bedside just before his heart beat its last. He was 36 and left behind a 3-year-old son.

“Today it’s us. And tomorrow it could be anybody,” Nancy Espinoza said.

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