U.S. tops 500K COVID-19 deaths
With over 40K Texans killed, collective trauma jolts communities
As the nation’s death toll from COVID-19 surpasses 500,000, experts remain bullish that vaccination efforts — reaching 1.6 million Americans a day — can slow the increasingly rapid growth of a grim figure.
“When this started in March last year we looked at how infectious the flu was and made general assumptions about COVID versus the flu,” said Dr. James McDeavitt, senior vice president and dean of clinical affairs at Baylor College of Medicine. “Back then, I’d guessed 250,000 people would be dead.
People laughed at that estimate. Now we’re twice what I thought it would be.”
In Texas, the death toll reached 41,423 on Monday — accounting for roughly 1 in 12 deaths nationally.
“There’s some numbness around the true, staggering toll this represents,” said Josh Michaud, associate director for global health policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation, a think tank based in Washington, D.C.
About 28 million people in the U.S. have contracted COVID-19, according to Johns Hopkins University, and the death toll is comparable to the population of Sacramento,
Calif., or Atlanta.
Even if only a small percentage of people who have contracted the virus have died, that’s still too many to lose, Michaud said.
The losses — teachers, nurses, custodial staff, parents, children — aren’t as easy to quantify as state tallies of the dead and the recovered. Texas is now without tens of thousands of people who contributed to their communities, and the toll it takes to grieve them could result in years of collective trauma.
In Houston, the people who died from the coronavirus include a doctor who treated patients for months before falling ill himself, a prominent preacher and activist who advocated for LGBTQ Christians and communities of color, and a retired bailiff who spent 34 years with the Harris County Sheriff ’s Office.
The families they leave behind include a father who chronicled his 17-year-old daughter’s monthlong battle with the virus at Texas Children’s Hospital, the twin brother of a Houston Fire Department captain and seven siblings who lost both parents and one of their brothers to COVID-19.
Surges of patients overwhelmed first responders and medical workers in the Houston region, too. At several points in the past year, people waited as long as 12 hours for an intensive care bed or emergency care, and 911 calls reporting respiratory distress increased.
Families who have lost someone to COVID-19 are anxious that the state and federal governments rushed to reopen. Essential workers have asked for more safety protocols. In some families’ opinions, workplaces should not have opened at all.
“People are asking questions about how much of this was preventable,” McDeavitt said.
Since the U.S. reached 100,000 deaths at the end of May, infection rates have ridden a roller coaster as states reopened businesses such as restaurants and theme parks, Americans gathered for holidays, and — finally — two vaccines were approved for emergency use. The most recent surge, which started in September, can be linked back to the summer, when people relaxed as cases ebbed and governments loosened some stringent public health measures, McDeavitt said.
“Some of this was preventable if we’d acted more in unison than we did,” he said.
Michaud thinks the U.S. could have taken several steps to prevent the virus’ spread. Public health officials, politicians and medical experts should have coordinated a more cohesive response, he said. There should have been financial and emotional support for people to isolate and recover after exposure to the virus. Local and federal government could have invested more money into contact tracing. And in his opinion, people desperate to reopen businesses put shortterm economic recovery at conflict with public health measures.
“It’s impossible to say what would work, but certainly every bit helps and every life saved is a family that doesn’t have to grieve,” Michaud said.
Worldwide, more than 2.4 million people have died of complications from the virus, according to Johns Hopkins University researchers. The U.S. makes up a little more than 20 percent of global deaths.
While the new variants of SARSCoV-2 could pose a problem, experts said vaccination campaigns will greatly slow hospitalization and death rates.
“I think the worst is behind us,” Michaud said.
President Joe Biden marked the 500,000th COVID-19 death Monday night with a candlelighting ceremony at the White House.
“It’s slowing now, and hopefully that continues so we don’t have another 500,000,” McDeavitt said.