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It’s a number that once seemed unimaginable.
In the next few days, the US will surpass 600,000 deaths from Covid-19, the highest death toll in the world. The milestone is nearing, although virus cases and deaths have fallen sharply in that country, vaccinations have become widespread, and many people have shed their masks and resumed life before the pandemic, including in New York and California, both of which fully reopened Tuesday .
Still, the coronavirus remains excruciatingly present for those who knew hundreds across the country are still dying from it every day.
In April, one of the victims was Toni Gallo, 67, from Valparaiso, Ind., Who had had the virus for five months. “The world has lost a loving, shining star,” says her obituary. On May 26, coronavirus claimed the life of Frank Sanchez Jr., a 61-year-old Army veteran from Nekimi, Wisconsin; he was a union leader and music lover who had built a successful DJ business with his wife. Last week, 43-year-old Police Officer Ryan Barham died from the virus in Susanville, California, the department said.
Although the number of deaths in the United States is higher than anywhere else, the number of deaths per capita in the country is lower than many European and Latin American countries, including Peru, Brazil, Belgium, and Italy. It’s ten times the toll former President Donald J. Trump once predicted.
“It’s a tragedy,” said Stephen Morse, professor of epidemiology at Columbia University Medical Center. “Much of this tragedy was preventable and it’s still happening.”
In the early days of the pandemic, federal officials shocked the country by announcing at a White House briefing that the virus could kill as many as 240,000 Americans, even with strict stay-at-home instructions.
“As sobering as that is, we should be prepared for it,” said Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert.
The first known death from the coronavirus in the United States occurred in February 2020. By the end of May, 100,000 people had been confirmed dead, an average of more than 1,100 deaths per day.
Over the next four months, the nation recorded an additional 100,000 deaths. Then the pace of the victims accelerated: the next 100,000 dead came in about three months; the next, just five weeks. By the end of February 2021, just over a month later, half a million Americans had died from the virus.
The last 100,000 deaths lasted much longer, about four months. Public health experts say the widespread vaccines have played the key role in slowing the death rate.
Hospital stays and deaths from the virus have declined sharply in the United States. Many schools, restaurants, places of worship and public parks are reopening. And about 44 percent of the US population – 145 million people – are fully vaccinated.
But the pace of vaccinations has slowed down significantly since mid-April, despite President Biden setting a July 4th deadline for 70 percent of adults to be at least partially vaccinated.
This week, Mr Biden urged Americans to get vaccinated as soon as possible, citing the ongoing death toll from the virus.
“We are approaching a sad milestone – nearly 600,000 lives lost due to Covid-19 in America,” said Biden. “My heart goes out to all those who have lost a loved one. I know this black hole that seems to consume you, that fills your chest when you lose someone who is close to you and whom you have adored. “
“Now is not the time to let our vigilance down,” he added.
It’s the remaining unvaccinated population – some people who oppose vaccines, others who haven’t gotten around to getting vaccinated – that are driving the ongoing deaths, experts say. And the virus is still raging in other countries too, including India and parts of South America.
“Until we have this under control around the world, it could come back and undo all the progress we’ve made so far,” said Dr. Marcus Plescia, the chief medical officer of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, the state health authorities. “I am concerned about the people who are not using these vaccines. It is you who will bear the brunt of the consequences. “
Daily deaths from Covid-19 in the United States have declined by about 90 percent since their peak in January, according to preliminary data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. According to a recent analysis by the New York Times, around half of coronavirus deaths in late May were from people ages 50 to 74, compared with a third in December.
Older white people are driving changes in death patterns, and blacks have seen the smallest decreases in deaths in most age groups compared to other major ethnic groups. Cumulative vaccination rates among blacks and Hispanics continue to lag behind those of Asians and whites.
In Wayne County, Michigan, vaccination reluctance is an ongoing problem, said Dr. Teena Chopra, director of infection prevention and hospital epidemiology at Detroit Medical Center. None of her coronavirus patients were fully vaccinated in May. Several have died, she said, and patients with the virus are still being admitted.
“It makes me very frustrated and angry because vaccination is the only way to end the pandemic,” said Dr. Chopra.
According to the Times, about 362 people die from the coronavirus every day in the United States. Fewer than 15,000 new cases of the virus are reported daily, the lowest point since testing became widely available last year.
Many families who have recently lost relatives to the virus are grappling with the dissonance of grieving for loved ones at a time when the pandemic seems to be fading for the rest of the country.
“It is important to know that 600,000 people have lost their lives in the last 16 months and all of their families and communities are struggling with this grief,” said Dr. Caitlin Rivers, epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “I don’t want us to leave this terrible time behind us and leave everything behind without thinking about what has been lost.”
Denise Lu, Mitch Smith and Daniel E. Slotnik Reporting contributed.