The United States officially surpassed 1 million known deaths from COVID-19 on Thursday, according to a New York Times tally, a cataclysmic outcome that only hints at the suffering of millions more Americans who are mourning their parents, children, siblings, friends and colleagues.
“Hopefully, the enormity of that number would spur us on to do whatever we can to make sure that we don’t have as bad a time in the coming months and years that we’ve had over the past two years,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, chief medical adviser to President Joe Biden, told a Boston public radio station, WGBH, this month.
Some initial forecasts put the number of Americans likely to die from the virus between 100,000 and 240,000, although officials warned that the death toll could climb if protective measures weren’t taken. The United States reached 100,000 in May 2020, and 200,000 a few months later, in September.
The United States has a higher rate of infection than many other wealthy countries do, and the virus has continued to spread in a population afflicted by inequity, political divisions, a sometimes overwhelmed public health system, and an inconsistent array of policies and responses.
Although COVID-19 stole lives from all strata of society, it magnified disparities, and some groups have been more vulnerable than others to infection, based on factors such as sex, age, health care access, income and housing.
The virus arrived in the United States by early 2020, setting off five distinct waves of new cases over the 26 months that followed. An unexpected early wave in the spring of 2020 was followed by another wave in the winter, when access to vaccines was still very limited; more Americans died in that wave than in any other period.
In January 2021, the country’s daily death toll peaked, with more than 3,300 deaths recorded each day in the United States. And then came new waves: delta in the summer of 2021 and omicron in the late fall and winter. Omicron caused illness that was milder for some, though not for all; even so, it spread so swiftly and so widely that U.S. deaths surged again, and peaked in the first week of February, when more than 2,500 Americans a day were dying.
Now, in mid-May, Americans are still dying — more than 300 a day on average, as of Wednesday. Vaccines are readily available to nearly everyone other than young children, but even so, about 34% of people across the country have not been inoculated against the virus, and about 70% have received no booster, despite the vaccines’ effectiveness at preventing severe disease and death.
“It’s reaching a point now with COVID, where some very obvious scientific truths based on clear-cut, very visible data are rejected by people,” Fauci said on WGBH. “When it gets in the way of the proper and appropriate response to a deadly outbreak, it becomes even more tragic.”
As of Tuesday, the average of new confirmed coronavirus cases surpassed 100,000 a day again, as omicron subvariants have spread across the country. And those figures are thought to be undercounts, especially since at-home test results often go unreported. Hospitalizations are on the rise, mostly on the East Coast; on average as of Wednesday, just over 22,800 Americans are in hospitals with the coronavirus on a given day, 27% more than two weeks ago.
Although each of the 1 million victims has a unique story, they leave behind a shared feeling among their loved ones, who say the lives of the dead have been pushed to the side in a country eager to get on with post-pandemic life. As it is, there is no national memorial to the people who have died, no shared remembrance, no communal place to gather or to receive a nation’s sympathy. There is only a number, a horrifying number.