HARTFORD (AP) — The United States (US) surpassed a jarring milestone on Wednesday in the COVID-19 pandemic: 100,000 deaths.
That number is the best estimate and most assuredly an undercount. But it represents the stark reality that more Americans have died from the virus than from the Vietnam and Korean wars combined.
“It’s a striking reminder of how dangerous this virus can be,” said Associate Director of Global Health Policy with the Kaiser Family Foundation in Washington Josh Michaud.
The once-unthinkable toll appears to be just the beginning of untold misery in the months ahead as Las Vegas and Walt Disney World make plans to reopen, crowds of unmasked Americans swarm beaches and public health officials predict a resurgence by fall.
US top Infectious Disease Expert Dr Anthony Fauci issued a stern warning after watching video of Memorial Day crowds gathered at a pool party in Missouri.
“We have a situation in which you see that type of crowding with no mask and people interacting. That’s not prudent, and that’s inviting a situation that could get out of control,” he said during an interview on Wednesday on CNN. “Don’t start leapfrogging some of the recommendations in the guidelines because that’s really tempting fate and asking for trouble.”
Worldwide, the virus has infected over 5.6 million people and killed over 350,000, with the US having the most confirmed cases and deaths by far, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University. Europe has recorded about 170,000 deaths, while the US reached over 100,000 in less than four months.
The true death toll from the virus, which emerged in China late last year and was first reported in the US in January, is widely believed to be significantly higher, with experts saying many victims died of COVID-19 without ever being tested for it.
Early on, US President Donald Trump downplayed the severity of the COVID-19, likening it to the flu, and predicted the US wouldn’t reach 100,000 deaths.
“I think we’ll be substantially under that number,” Trump said on April 10. Ten days later, he said, “We’re going toward 50- or 60,000 people.” Ten days after that, “We’re probably heading to 60,000, 70,000.”
Critics have said deaths spiked because Trump was slow to respond, but he has contended on Twitter that it could have been 20 times higher without his actions. He has urged states to reopen their economies after months of stay-at-home restrictions.
The virus exacted an especially vicious toll on Trump’s hometown of New York City and its surrounding suburbs, killing more than 21,000. At the peak, hundreds of people were dying per day in New York City, and hospitals, ambulances and first responders were inundated with patients.
There is no vaccine or treatment for COVID-19, though several emergency treatments are being used after showing some promise in preliminary testing.
Worldwide, about a dozen vaccine candidates are starting to be tested or getting close to it. Health officials have said studies of a potential vaccine might be done by late this year or early next year.
Only half of Americans said they would be willing to get vaccinated if scientists are successful in developing a vaccine, according to a poll released on Wednesday from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
For most, the COVID-19 causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.
It’s not even clear when the COVID-19 turned deadly in the US. Initially, it was believed the first US deaths from the virus were in late February in a Seattle suburb. But by mid-April, it was determined that two people with the COVID-19 died in California as many as three weeks earlier.
Comparing countries is tricky, given varying levels of testing and that some COVID-19 deaths can be missed. According to figures tracked by Johns Hopkins University, the death rate per 100,000 people is lower in the US than in Italy, France and Spain but higher than in Germany, China, South Korea, Singapore, Japan, New Zealand and Australia.
“The experience of other countries shows that death at that scale was preventable,” said Michaud of the Kaiser Family Foundation. “To some extent, the US suffers from having a slow start and inconsistent approach. We might have seen a different trajectory if different policies were put into place earlier and more forcefully.”
Countries with low death rates suppressed the virus “through lots of testing, contact tracing and policies to support isolation and quarantine of people at risk,” Michaud said.
Director of ICAP Dr Wafaa El-Sadr, a global health centre at Columbia University, called the US death rate shocking.
“It reflects the fact that we have neglected basic fundamentals for health,” El-Sadr said. “So, now we are in this shameful situation. It is the most vulnerable people in our midst — the elderly, the poor, members of racial/ethnic minority groups — who are the ones disproportionately getting sick and dying.”