The death toll of COVID-19 in the United States was over 500,000 on Monday, a dramatic achievement that all but equals the number of Americans killed in World War II, Korea and Vietnam combined.
President Joe Biden arranged a sunset period of silence and a candlelight service at the White House and ordered American flags to be lowered in federal buildings for the next five days.
“We have to resist becoming numb to the sorrow,” Biden said. “We have to resist viewing each life as a statistic or a blur.”
The half-million point, as reported by Johns Hopkins University, comes as states redouble their efforts to bring coronavirus vaccine into their arms after last week’s winter weather shutdown clinics, slowed down vaccine deliveries, and caused tens of thousands of people to miss their vaccines.
Despite the introduction of vaccines after mid-December, the University of Washington’s tightly tracked model projects more than 589,000 dead by June 1.
The US toll is by far the largest recorded in the world, accounting for 20% of the world’s nearly 2.5 million coronavirus deaths, while actual figures are believed to be considerably higher, partially because many cases were missed, especially early in the epidemic.
The first recorded death in the United States happened in early February 2020. It took four months to make the first 100,000 deaths. The toll reached 200,000 in September and 300,000 in December, and it took only over a month to go from 300,000 to 400,000, then another month to go from 400,000 to 500,000.
The US reported some 405,000 deaths in the Second World War, 58,000 in the Vietnam War and 36,000 in the Korean War.
Total regular deaths and cases have plunged in the last few weeks. Virus deaths have declined from more than 4,000 in several days in January to an average of less than 1,900 per day.
But experts warn that risky variations may cause the pattern to reverse. And some researchers claim that not enough Americans have been inoculated to make a major impact in the vaccine.
Instead, the decline in deaths and cases was due to the passage of holidays; the chilly and gloomy days of mid-winter when many people stay home; and greater attention to the laws of masking and social distancing.
Dr. Ryan Stanton, an emergency room physician in Lexington, Kentucky, who treated dozens of COVID-19 patients, said he never felt that US deaths would be so high.
“I was one of those early ones that thought this may be something that may hit us for a couple months … I definitely thought we would be done with it before we got into the fall. And I definitely didn’t see it heading off into 2021,” Stanton said.
Kristy Sourk, an intensive-care nurse at Hutchinson Regional Medical Center in Hutchinson, Kansas, said she is encouraged by the declining caseload and progress in vaccinating people, but “I know we are so far from over.”
People “are still dying, and families are still isolated from their loved ones who are unable to be with them so that is still pretty heart-wrenching,” she said.