The death toll in the US from COVID-19 reached 1 million on Monday, a once unimaginable figure that only refers to the multitudes of loved ones and friends staggered by grief and frustration.
The confirmed death toll is equivalent to a 9/11 attack every day for 336 days. It is roughly equal to the number of Americans killed in the Civil War and World War II combined. It’s like Boston and Pittsburgh have been wiped out.
“It’s hard to imagine a million people ripped off this earth,” said Jennifer Nuzzo, who heads a new pandemic center at Brown University School of Public Health in Providence, Rhode Island. “It’s still happening, and we’re making it happen.”
Some stragglers say they can’t get back to normal. They play the voicemail messages of their loved ones. Or watch old videos to see them dance. When other people say they are done with the virus, they burst into silence with anger or pain.
“‘Normal.’ I hate that word,” said Julie Wallace, 55, of Elyria, Ohio, who lost her husband to COVID-19 in 2020. “We can all never go back to normal.”
More men than women died. Three in four deaths were over 65. White people accounted for the most deaths overall. But black, Hispanic, and Native American people are about twice as likely to die from COVID-19 as their white counterparts.
Most deaths have occurred in urban areas, but rural places – where resistance to masks and vaccinations tends to run high – have sometimes paid a heavy price.
The death toll less than 2 1/2 years after the outbreak is based on death certificate data collected by the National Center for Health Statistics of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But the number of deaths from COVID-19, directly or indirectly, from the disruption of the healthcare system in the world’s richest country is believed to be much higher.
The milestone comes more than three months after the US reached 900,000 deaths. The pace has slowed since a harrowing winter wave fueled by the omicron variant. The US averages about 300 COVID-19 deaths per day, compared to a peak of about 3,400 per day in January 2021.
The largest bell in the Washington National Cathedral in the nation’s capital tolled 1,000 times a week, once for every 1,000 deaths. President Joe Biden on Thursday ordered that flags be lowered to half-mast, calling every life “an irreplaceable loss.”
“As a nation, we must not become numb to so much grief,” he said. “To heal, we must remember.”
More than half of the deaths have occurred since vaccines became available in December 2020. Two-thirds of Americans are fully vaccinated, and nearly half have had at least one booster dose. But demand for the vaccine has plummeted, and the campaign to use weapons is plagued by misinformation, mistrust, and political polarization.
According to the CDC, unvaccinated people have a 10 times greater risk of dying from COVID-19 than fully vaccinated people.
“For me, that’s what’s so particularly heartbreaking,” Nuzzo said. She said that vaccines are safe and significantly reduce the chance of serious illness. They “largely take the possibility of death off the table.”
Angelina Proia, 36, of New York, lost her father to COVID-19 in April 2020. She runs a support group for grieving families on Facebook and has seen it split over vaccinations. She has kicked people out of the group for spreading misinformation.
“I don’t want to hear conspiracy theories. I don’t want to hear anti-science,” said Proia, wishing her father could have been vaccinated.
Sara Atkins, 42, of Wynnewood, Pennsylvania, channels her grief to fight for global vaccination and better access to health care in honor of her father, Andy Rotman-Zaid, who died of COVID-19 in December 2020.
“My father gave me marching orders to end it and make sure it doesn’t happen again,” Atkins said of the pandemic. “He said to me, ‘Police my death if I die from this.'”
Julie Wallace and her husband, Lewis Dunlap, had cell numbers one digit apart. She continues to pay to keep his number. She shouts it just to hear his voice.
“It’s just so important to hear that sometimes,” she said. “It gives you reassurance and also tears your heart out.”
Some have offered solace in poetry. In Philadelphia, poet, and social worker Trapeta Mayson created a 24-hour poetry hotline called Healing Verse. During the pandemic, traffic to the Academy of American Poets’ website brush.org soared.
Brian Sonia-Wallace, the poet laureate of West Hollywood, California, has traveled the country writing poems he rents out. He envisions a memorial of a million poems written by people who don’t normally write poetry. They would talk to those who are grieving and listen to connection points.
“What we need as a nation is empathy,” said Tanya Alves, 35, of Weston, Florida, who lost her 24-year-old sister to COVID-19 in October. “More than two years into the pandemic, with all cases and lives lost, we should be more compassionate and respectful when we talk about COVID. Thousands of families have been changed forever. This virus is not just a cold.”
The Associated Press Health and Science Department is supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.