The United States reached a staggering milestone on Monday, surpassing 500,000 known coronavirus-related deaths in a pandemic that has lasted almost a year. The nation’s total virus toll is higher than in any other country in the world. It has far surpassed early predictions of loss by some federal experts. And it means that more Americans have died from Covid-19 than did on the battlefields of World War I, World War II and the Vietnam War combined.
“The magnitude of it is just horrifying,” said Jeffrey Shaman, a professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia University who has modeled the virus’s spread and says that the scale of loss was not inevitable, but a result of the failure to control the virus’s spread in the United States. “It’s been a failure,” he said.
The United States accounts for about 20 percent of the world’s known Covid deaths, but makes up just 4.25 percent of the global population.
About one in 670 Americans has died of Covid-19, which has become a leading cause of death in this country, along with heart disease and cancer, and has driven down life expectancy more sharply than in decades. The losses, monumental for the country, have been searingly personal for the relatives and friends of the 500,000.
“It never goes away,” the Rev. Ezra Jones of Chicago said of his grief for his uncle, Moses Jones, who died of the coronavirus in April.
The harrowing milestone comes amid hopeful news: New virus cases and deaths have slowed dramatically, and vaccine distribution has gradually picked up pace. But uncertainty remains about emerging variants of the virus, some more contagious and possibly more lethal, so it may be months before the pandemic is contained. Scientists say the trajectory of the U.S. death toll will depend on the speed of vaccinations, the effects of the variants and how closely people stick to guidelines like mask-wearing and social distancing.
In the early days of the pandemic, Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the top infectious-disease expert in the country, and Dr. Deborah L. Birx, who was coordinating the coronavirus response at the time, projected last March that even with strict stay-at-home orders, the virus might kill as many as 240,000 Americans, a number that seemed unimaginable at the time.
“As sobering a number as that is, we should be prepared for it,” Dr. Fauci said at the time.
Less than a year later, the virus has killed more than twice that number.
U.S. deaths from Covid-19 came faster as the pandemic wore on. The country’s first known Covid-19 death occurred in Santa Clara County, Calif., on Feb. 6, 2020, and by the end of May, 100,000 people had died. It took four months for the nation to log another 100,000 deaths; the next, about three months; the next, just five weeks.
The virus has reached every corner of America, devastating dense cities and rural counties alike through surges that barreled through one region and then another.
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In New York City, more than 28,000 people have died of the virus — or roughly one in 295 people. In Los Angeles County, the toll is about one in 500 people. In Lamb County, Texas, where 13,000 people live scattered on a sprawling expanse of 1,000 square miles, the loss is one in 163 people.
The virus has torn through nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, spreading easily among vulnerable residents: They account for more than 163,000 deaths, about one-third of the country’s total.
Virus deaths also have disproportionately affected Americans along racial lines. Over all, the death rate for Black Americans with Covid-19 has been almost two times higher than for white Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; the death rate for Hispanics was 2.3 times higher than for white Americans. And for Native Americans, it was 2.4 times higher.
By Monday, about 1,900 Covid deaths were being reported, on average, most days — down from more than 3,300 at peak points in January. The slowing came as a relief, but scientists said variants make it difficult to project the future of the pandemic, and historians cautioned against turning away from the scale of the country’s losses.
“There will be a real drive to say, ‘Look how well we’re doing,’” said Nancy Bristow, chair of the history department at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Wash., and author of “American Pandemic: The Lost Worlds of the 1918 Influenza Epidemic.” But she warned against inclinations now to “rewrite this story into another story of American triumph.”