A white flag with a memorial written on it is one of thousands of white flags representing Americans who have died of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) placed on 20 acres of the National Mall in Washington, September 26, 2021.
Joshua Roberts | Reuters
The United States surpassed one million Covid-19 deaths on Wednesday, according to data compiled by NBC News – a scale of loss once unthinkable even for the country with the highest rate in the world recorded toll of the virus.
The number – equivalent to the population of San Jose, California, the 10th largest city in the United States – has been reached with breathtaking speed: 27 months after the country confirmed its first case of the virus.
“Each one of those people touched hundreds of other people,” said Diana Order, whose husband, Juan Ordonez, died in April 2020 at age 40, five days before their daughter Mia’s fifth birthday. “It’s an exponential number of other people walking around with a little hole in their heart.”
While Covid deaths have slowed in recent weeks, around 360 people are still dying every day. The death toll is far higher than most people could have imagined at the start of the pandemic, particularly because former President Donald Trump repeatedly downplayed the virus during his tenure.
“It’s their new hoax,” Trump told Democrats in front of a cheering crowd at a rally in North Charleston, South Carolina on Feb. 28, 2020. “So far we haven’t lost anyone to the coronavirus.”
A day later, health officials in Washington made the inevitable announcement: a sick with coronavirus in their condition were dead.
Now more than two years and 999,999 dead laterthe death toll in the United States is the highest total in the world by a significant margin, numbers show. In a distant second is Brazil, which has had just over 660,000 confirmed Covid deaths.
dr. Christopher Murraywho directs the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington School of Medicine, said that although this milestone is looming, “the fact that so many people have died is still appalling.”
And the toll continues to rise.
“It’s far from over,” Murray said.
Each death causes a lasting wave of pain. Diana Ordonez’s husband worked in information security management and had just been promoted before he died. When he wasn’t working, he enjoyed being with his family.
For their daughter, Mia, now 7, the loss of her father has brought anxiety, overwhelming sadness, trouble sleeping and many questions. Ordonez, 35, of Waldwick, New Jersey, still doesn’t have answers.
“I try to be understanding, but I really felt so many times that I wasn’t equipped to raise this person,” she said.
She also finds that moments of joy are tinged with sadness.
“He’s clouded with ‘God, I wish he was here for that,'” Ordonez said. “It could be the simple moments, like watching Mia at ballet, or going to a birthday party and watching her jump up and down, holding her friend’s hand.”
Many see the staggering US death toll as evidence of its inadequate response to the crisis.
“We had the opportunity to be a shining example for the rest of the world on how to deal with the pandemic, and we didn’t,” said Nico Montero, a 17-year-old from County of Bucks, Pennsylvania. Montero made headlines earlier this year when he traveled to Philadelphia, where children 11 or older can be vaccinated without parental consent, to receive his shot at 16.
Dr. Robert Murphy, executive director of the Havey Institute for Global Health at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, said many expected the United States to better control the spread of the virus.
“We were very encouraged by the rapid development of vaccines, and everyone really thought we were going to vaccinate to get through this,” he said. “But then we had people who didn’t even want to take that damn vaccine.”
Steven Ho, 32, was an emergency technician in Los Angeles when the pandemic began. He said he believed changing Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines were confusing the public, while disputes over vaccines and masks were costing lives.
“We just haven’t done a good job,” he said.
Ho quit his job at the hospital last year – one of many healthcare workers to have done so. A recent study calculated that around 3.2% of healthcare workers were leaving the industry per month before the pandemic. This share increased to 5.6% from April to December 2020. Compared to February 2020, the health workforce lost almost 300,000 employees, the The US Department of Labor reported April 1.
Ho decided to become an actor. Combining his experience treating Covid patients with comedy, he donned his hospital scrubs to create a popular series of TikTok videos called “Tips from the emergency room.”
It was Ho’s way of coping with what he had witnessed.
“It helped me release that pent up energy, anger and sadness,” he said.
More than half of Covid deaths in the United States have occurred since President Joe Biden’s inauguration in January 2021.
Most of those deaths — more than 80% between April and December 2021, for example — were unvaccinated Americans, according to the CDC. In February, the risk of death from Covid was 20 times higher for unvaccinated people than for those who have been vaccinated and boosted, according to CDC data.
“We know vaccines work. We know masks work. We know social distancing works, and we know crowd control, limiting crowded spaces, works. It’s like a no-brainer, but we don’t we can’t seem to do it,” Murphy said.
Sherie Hellams Gamble – whose mother, Patricia Edwards, who died of Covid in August 2020 – is concerned about the effects of the ongoing pandemic on healthcare workers. Edwards, 62, was an intensive care unit nurse for three decades and treated her patients like family, her daughter said.
“I always talk to the people who worked with her. I always catch myself saying, ‘Please be careful. Thinking of you,’” said Gamble, of Greenville, South Carolina. “Two years later and they’re still in the fight – I know it can’t be easy.”
Nine months after Edwards’ death, she was recognized with a nursing lifetime achievement award. Gamble said it was bittersweet to accept the award on her mother’s behalf.
“It cemented her work that she did,” Gamble said.
The family created a scholarship hoping to bring more nurses like Edwards into the field. Gamble said she imagined that if Edwards was still alive today, she would probably tell everyone to take care of themselves.
“She would probably say, ‘Not only does your health affect you, but it affects other people, so do what you can to stay healthy,'” she said.
Gamble is sure her mother would also have another reminder: “Don’t take life and the days you’re still here on Earth for granted.”