US nears 600,000 virus deaths despite progress from vaccines

By Dan Levin and Julie Bosman

It is a number that once seemed unimaginable.

In the next few days, the United States will surpass 600,000 deaths from COVID-19, the highest death toll in the world. The milestone approaches even though virus cases and deaths in this country have sharply fallen, vaccinations have been distributed widely, and many people have shed their masks and resumed pre-pandemic lives, including in New York and California, which both fully reopened Tuesday.

Yet the coronavirus remains agonizingly present for those who knew the hundreds across the country still dying of it each day.

In April, one of the victims was Toni Gallo, 67, of Valparaiso, Indiana, who had been sick with the virus for five months. “The world has lost a loving shining star,” her obituary read. On May 26, the coronavirus claimed the life of Frank Sanchez Jr., a 61-year-old Army veteran from Nekimi, Wisconsin; he was a union leader and lover of music who had built a successful DJ business with his wife. Last week, Officer Ryan Barham, 43, of the Susanville, California, police died from the virus, the department announced.

Although the sheer number of deaths in the United States is higher than anywhere else, the country’s toll is lower, on a per capita basis, than in many European and Latin American countries, including Peru, Brazil, Belgium and Italy. It is 10 times the toll that former President Donald Trump once predicted.

“It’s a tragedy,” said Stephen Morse, a professor of epidemiology at the Columbia University Medical Center. “A lot of that tragedy was avoidable, and it’s still happening.”

In the early days of the pandemic, federal officials had shocked the country by announcing at a White House briefing that even with strict stay-at-home orders, the virus might kill as many as 240,000 Americans.

“As sobering a number as that is, we should be prepared for it,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, said at the time.

The first known death from the coronavirus in the United States occurred in February 2020. By the end of that May, 100,000 people had been confirmed dead, an average of more than 1,100 deaths each day.

Over the next four months, the nation recorded another 100,000 deaths. Then the pace of casualties accelerated: The next 100,000 deaths came in about three months; the next, just five weeks. By late February 2021, just more than a month later, half a million Americans had died of the virus.

The last 100,000 deaths took far longer, about four months. Public health experts say that the widely available vaccines have played the central role in slowing the death rate.

Hospitalizations and deaths from the virus have been plummeting across the United States.

Many schools, restaurants, houses of worship and public parks are reopened. And about 44% of the U.S. population — 145 million people — is fully vaccinated.

Yet since mid-April, the pace of inoculations has dropped sharply, even as President Joe Biden set a July 4 deadline to have 70% of adults at least partially vaccinated.

This week, Biden urged Americans to be vaccinated as soon as possible, citing the continuing death toll from the virus.

“We’re approaching a sad milestone — almost 600,000 lost lives because of COVID-19 in America,” Biden said. “My heart goes out to all those who’ve lost a loved one. I know that black hole that seems to consume you, that fills up your chest, when you lose someone that’s close to you that you adored.”

“Now is not the time to let our guard down,” he added.

It is the remaining unvaccinated population — some people who are refusing vaccines, others who have not gotten around to vaccination yet — that is driving the lingering deaths, experts say. And the virus is still raging in other countries, including India and parts of South America.

“Until we have this under control across the world, it could come back and thwart all the progress we’ve made so far,” said Dr. Marcus Plescia, chief medical officer for the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, which represents state health agencies. “I’m worried about the people who are not taking advantage of these vaccines. They’re the ones who are going to bear the brunt of the consequences.”

Daily deaths from COVID-19 have dropped about 90% in the United States since their peak in January, according to provisional data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About half of coronavirus deaths at the end of May were made up of people ages 50 to 74, compared with a third in December, according to a recent New York Times analysis.

Older white people are driving the shifts in death patterns, and across most age groups, Black people saw the smallest decrease in deaths compared with other large racial groups.

Cumulative vaccination rates among Black and Hispanic people continue to lag behind those of Asian and white people.

In Wayne County, Michigan, vaccine hesitancy is a lingering problem, said Dr. Teena Chopra, director of infection prevention and hospital epidemiology at the Detroit Medical Center. In May, none of her coronavirus patients were fully vaccinated. Several have died, she said, and patients with the virus are still being admitted.

“It makes me feel very frustrated and angry because getting people vaccinated is the only way to end the pandemic,” Chopra said.

According to data compiled by The New York Times, about 362 people across the United States are dying from the coronavirus each day. Fewer than 15,000 new cases of the virus are being reported daily, the lowest point since testing became widely available last year.

Many families who have recently lost relatives to the virus are struggling with the dissonance of mourning loved ones at a time when the pandemic appears to be fading for the rest of the country.

“It’s important to recognize that 600,000 people lost their lives in the last 16 months, and all of their families and communities are grappling with that grief,” said Dr. Caitlin Rivers, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “I don’t want it to be the case that we move on from this terrible period and kind of put it all behind us without reflecting on what’s been lost.”

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