COVID-19 pandemic death toll surpasses half a million lives

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For weeks after Cindy Pollock began planting tiny flags across her yard — one for each of the more than 1800 Idahoans killed by COVID-19 — the toll was mostly a number.

Until two women she had never met rang her doorbell in tears, seeking a place to mourn the husband and father they had just lost.

“I just wanted to hug them,” she said. “Because that was all I could do.”

Cindy Pollack, of Idaho, has planted tiny flags to commemorate 1800 people killed by COVID-19. The US has reached a death toll of 500,000 lives. (AP)

After a year that has darkened doorways across the US, the pandemic has just surpassed a milestone that once seemed unimaginable, a reminder of the virus’s reach into all corners of the country and communities of every size and makeup.

“It’s very hard for me to imagine an American who doesn’t know someone who has died or have a family member who has died,” said Ali Mokdad, a professor of health metrics at the University of Washington in Seattle. “We haven’t really fully understood how bad it is, how devastating it is, for all of us.”

Experts warn that more than 100,000 more deaths are likely in the next few months, despite a massive campaign to vaccinate people. Meanwhile, the nation’s trauma continues to accrue in a way unparalleled in recent American life, said Donna Schuurman of the Dougy Centre for Grieving Children & Families in Portland, Oregon.

US authorities are warning that a further 100,000 coronavirus deaths are expected in coming months. (AP)

At other moments of epic loss, like the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Americans have pulled together to confront crisis and console survivors. But this time, the nation is deeply divided. Staggering numbers of families are dealing with death, serious illness and financial hardship. And many are left to cope in isolation, unable even to hold funerals.

“In a way, we’re all grieving,” said Ms Schuurman, who has counselled the families of those killed in terrorist attacks, natural disasters and school shootings.

In recent weeks, virus deaths have fallen from more than 4000 reported on some days in January to an average of fewer than 1900 per day.

Still, at almost half a million, the toll recorded by Johns Hopkins University is already greater than the population of Miami or Kansas City, Missouri. It is roughly equal to the number of Americans killed in World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War combined. It is akin to a 9/11 every day for nearly six months.

A file photo of the 2001 Twin Towers attack in New York on September 11, 2001 that killed thousands of people. Experts have compared the US pandemic death toll to a 9/11 every day. (AP)

The toll, accounting for one in five deaths reported worldwide, has far exceeded early projections, which assumed that federal and state governments would marshal a comprehensive and sustained response and individual Americans would heed warnings.

Instead, a push to reopen the economy last northern spring and the refusal by many to maintain social distancing and wear face masks fuelled the spread.

The figures alone do not come close to capturing the heartbreak.

9News Staff
9News Staff (9News)

“I never once doubted that he was not going to make it. … I so believed in him and my faith,” said Nancy Espinoza, whose husband, Antonio, was hospitalised with COVID-19 last month.

The couple from Riverside County, California, had been together since high school. They pursued parallel nursing careers and started a family. Then, on January 25, Nancy was called to Antonio’s bedside just before his heart beat its last. He was 36 and left behind a three-year-old son.

Many US states refused to make face masks mandatory last year, hastening the spread of the virus. (Getty)

“Today it’s us. And tomorrow it could be anybody,” Nancy Espinoza said.

By late last northern autumn, 54 per cent of Americans reported knowing someone who had died of COVID-19 or had been hospitalised with it, according to a Pew Research Centre poll. The grieving was even more widespread among Black Americans, Hispanics and other minorities.

Deaths have nearly doubled since then, with the scourge spreading far beyond the northeast and northwest metropolitan areas slammed by the virus last spring and the southern US cities hit hard last northern summer.