The US death toll from COVID-19 reached 1 million on Monday, a once unimaginable figure that only hints at the multitude of loved ones and friends shattered by grief and frustration.
The confirmed death toll is equivalent to one 9/11 attack every day for 336 days. That’s roughly equal to the number of Americans who died in the Civil War and World War II combined. It’s like Boston and Pittsburgh have been wiped out.
“It’s hard to imagine a million people ripped from this land,” said Jennifer Nuzzo, who directs a new pandemic center at Brown University School of Public Health in Providence, Rhode Island. “It always happens and we let it happen.”
Some of those who stayed said they could not return to normal. They listen to the voicemails of their loved ones. Or watch old videos to see them dancing. When other people say they are done with the virus, they bristle in anger or pain in silence.
“‘Normal.’ I hate that word,” said Julie Wallace, 55, of Elyria, Ohio, who lost her husband to COVID-19 in 2020. “We’ll never all go back to normal.”
Three out of four deaths were in people aged 65 and over. More men died than women. Whites accounted for most deaths overall. But blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans were about twice as likely to die from COVID-19 as their white counterparts.
Most deaths have occurred in urban areas, but rural areas – where opposition to masks and vaccinations tend to be high – have sometimes paid a heavy price.
The number of deaths less than 2.5 years after the start of the epidemic is based on death certificate data compiled by the National Center for Health Statistics of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But the actual number of lives lost to COVID-19, either directly or indirectly through disruption of the healthcare system in the world’s wealthiest country, would be far higher.
The United States has the highest COVID-19 death toll of any country, although health experts have long suspected the true death toll in places like India, Brazil and Russia is higher than the official figures.
The milestone comes more than three months after the United States hit 900,000 deaths. The pace has slowed since a heartbreaking winter surge fueled by the omicron variant.
The United States is averaging about 300 COVID-19 deaths a day, up from a peak of about 3,400 a day in January 2021. New cases are on the rise again, climbing more than 60% in the two past weeks to average around 86,000 per day – still well below the all-time high of over 800,000, reached when the omicron variant was raging over the winter.
The largest bell at Washington National Cathedral in the nation’s capital rang 1,000 times a week, once for every 1,000 deaths. President Joe Biden on Thursday ordered the flags flown at half-mast and called every life an “irreplaceable loss.”
“As a nation, we must not be numb to such grief,” he said in a statement. “To heal, you have to remember.”
More than half of the deaths have occurred since vaccines became available in December 2020. Two-thirds of Americans are fully immunized and nearly half have received at least one booster dose.
But demand for the vaccine has plummeted and the campaign to put shots in the gun has been plagued by misinformation, mistrust and political polarization.
Unvaccinated people have a 10 times higher risk of dying from COVID-19 than fully vaccinated people, according to the CDC.
“To me, that’s what’s particularly heartbreaking,” Nuzzo said. Vaccines are safe and significantly reduce the risk of serious illness, she said. They “largely take the possibility of death off the table”.
Angelina Proia, 36, from New York, lost her father to COVID-19 in April 2020. She runs a grieving family support group on Facebook and has seen him split over vaccinations. She expelled people from the group for spreading false information.
“I don’t want to hear conspiracy theories. I don’t want to hear anti-science,” said Proia, who wishes his father could have been vaccinated.
Sara Atkins, 42, of Wynnewood, Pennsylvania, is channeling her grief in the fight for global immunization and better access to healthcare to honor her father, Andy Rotman-Zaid, who died of COVID-19 in December 2020.
“My dad gave me the order to end it and make sure it doesn’t happen again,” Atkins said of the pandemic. “He said to me, ‘Politicize my death if I die from this. “”
Julie Wallace and her husband, Lewis Dunlap, had one-digit cellphone numbers for each other. She keeps paying to keep her number. She calls him just to hear his voice.
“It’s so important to hear that sometimes,” she said. “It gives you a bit of comfort while tearing your heart out.”
Some offered solace in poetry. In Philadelphia, poet and social worker Trapeta Mayson started a 24-hour poetry helpline called Healing Verse. Traffic to the Academy of American Poets’ poets.org site has increased during the pandemic.
Poet Laureate Brian Sonia-Wallace from West Hollywood, California has traveled the country writing poems for praise. He imagines a memorial of a million poems, written by people who normally don’t write poetry. They would speak to those who are grieving and listen for points of connection.
“What we need as a nation is empathy,” said Tanya Alves, 35, of Weston, Florida, who lost her 24-year-old sister to COVID-19 in October. . “More than two years into the pandemic, with all the cases and lives lost, we should be more compassionate and respectful when we talk about COVID. Thousands of families have changed forever. This virus is not just a cold.”