U.S. reaches grim milestone of 500,000 COVID-19 deaths

500000 covid deaths
Photo via Elvert Barnes/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The U.S. has reached a staggering milestone in the COVID-19 pandemic, with one news source reporting the nation surpassing 500,000 deaths on Feb. 21, and others asserting that the half-million mark is looming. 

NBC News reported that, by its tally, the U.S. has now surpassed 500,000 COVID deaths in the pandemic. With around 2.46 million people dead worldwide from the coronavirus, the U.S. has registered nearly one in five coronavirus deaths—by far the most of any nation—despite having less than 5% of the global population within its borders. 

Though new daily case numbers are down appreciably from where they were, the numbers are still alarming and reflect the exponential nature of a curve that the U.S. has sought to flatten since the pandemic accelerated in the spring of 2020. 

“We are still at about 100,000 cases a day,” said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, on the Feb. 21 edition of NBC News’ Meet the Press.

“We are still at around 1,500-3,500 deaths per day,” she noted. “The cases are more 2½-fold times what we saw over the summer. It’s encouraging to see these trends coming down, but they’re coming down from an extraordinarily high place.” 

USA Today went as far as to say “there are signs the pandemic may be abating, from the decreasing number of cases, hospitalizations, and fatalities to the improved vaccine rollout and production.” Its coverage of the milestone focused on healthcare workers who have been on the frontlines of the pandemic for more than a year. 

“There’s definitely some tangible fatigue on the healthcare workers’ side, being sick of COVID and sick of people disregarding public health guidance, getting sick and expecting us to defer another vacation or put off something else,” said Eric Cioe-Peña, an emergency room physician running a COVID-19 field hospital in New York, told USA Today. “I’ve been telling people who thank me for this, ‘Just tell yourself and everyone you know to wear a mask when you’re out in public places. Don’t clap, don’t give me baked goods. I don’t need any of that. I need you to wear a mask and not get COVID.’”

CNN’s coverage of the 500,000 COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. was coupled with a warning from Dr. Anthony Fauci that Americans could be wearing masks even into 2022, as the U.S. looks to transition out of what it labeled “the worst public health calamity in 100 years.”

The article noted that at this time last year, then-President Trump was downplaying the severity of the pandemic that was coming, noting, “We have it very much under control” and “We’ve had no deaths.” 

Even last April, as the Guardian then reported, Trump was adjusting national expectations around the pandemic by saying if the nation could hold down COVID-19 deaths to 100,000, it would signal “a very good job” from his administration.

That was in part a response to Fauci’s Mar. 30, 2020 projection that the coronavirus could kill as many as 200,000 Americans.

“I mean, looking at what we’re seeing now, I would say between 100,000 and 200,000 … deaths,” the Guardian quoted Fauci as saying, though he also added at the time, “I just don’t think that we really need to make a projection, when it’s such a moving target that you can so easily be wrong and mislead people.”

The Washington Post, seeking to put the numbers in tangible terms, used an average motor coach bus with 50 passengers as a visual. To transport 500,000 people in those buses, it would require a line nearly 95 miles long—the distance between New York and Philadelphia—using 45-foot-long buses with six feet of space between each bus to calculate the grim visual. 

While the U.S. may not surpass the 675,000 who died in the flu pandemic of 1918 and 1919, the Washington Post article noted “health officials have said the actual toll is probably higher” than the half-million reported, and the jump from 400,000 to 500,000 has happened in a little over a month, similar to the time span it took to get from 300,000 to 400,000. 

By contrast, the jump from 200,000 to 300,000 U.S. deaths took a little less than three months, and the rise from 100,000 to 200,000 deaths unfolded over the span of nearly four months. 

Vaccines and social distancing may change this trend for the better in the coming months, though as the Post wrote, “At some point, it will be time to try to visualize the end of this pandemic.” 

Sources: NBC News, USA Today, CNN, Guardian [1], [2], Washington Post

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