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U.S. COVID-19 deaths hit 600,000, equal to yearly cancer toll

Two men put a lid over a body wrapped in a white covering.
Transporters Miguel Lopez, right, and Noe Meza prepare to move the body of a COVID-19 victim to a morgue at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in Los Angeles in early January.
(Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

The U.S. death toll from COVID-19 topped 600,000 on Tuesday, even as the vaccination drive has drastically brought down daily cases and fatalities and allowed the country to emerge from the gloom and look forward to summer.

The number of lives lost, as recorded by Johns Hopkins University, is greater than the population of Baltimore or Milwaukee. It is about equal to the number of Americans who died of cancer in 2019. Worldwide, the COVID-19 death toll stands at about 3.8 million.

The real totals in the U.S. and around the globe are thought to be significantly higher, with many cases overlooked or possibly concealed by some countries.

The milestone came the same day that California, the most populous state and the first to impose a coronavirus lockdown, lifted most remaining restrictions and ushered in what was billed as its “grand reopening” just in time for summer.

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Tuesday is not the first time California has tried to reopen its economy during the COVID-19 pandemic. But officials are hopeful it will be the last.

Gone are state rules on social distancing and limits on capacity at restaurants, bars, supermarkets, gyms, stadiums and other places. Disneyland is throwing open its gates to all tourists after allowing just California residents. Fans will be able to sit elbow-to-elbow and cheer without masks at Dodgers and Giants games.

“Deep down, I want to rejoice,” said Rita Torres, a retired university administrator in Oakland, Calif. But she plans to take it slow: “Because it’s kind of like, is it too soon? Will we be sorry?”

Elsewhere around the country, states continued to move closer to normal, step by step. Massachusetts officially lifted its state of emergency Tuesday, though many restrictions had already been eased, including mask requirements and limits on gatherings.

With the advent of the vaccine in mid-December, COVID-19 deaths per day in the U.S. have plummeted to an average of around 340, from a high of more than 3,400 in mid-January. Cases are running at about 14,000 a day on average, down from a quarter of a million per day over the winter.

President Biden acknowledged the approaching milestone Monday during his visit to Europe, saying that although new cases and deaths are dropping dramatically in the U.S., “there’s still too many lives being lost,” and “now is not the time to let our guard down.”

The most recent deaths are seen in some ways as especially tragic now that the vaccine has become available practically for the asking.

More than 50% of Americans have had at least one dose of vaccine, while over 40% are fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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But demand for shots in the U.S. has dropped off dramatically, leaving many places with a surplus of doses and casting doubt on whether the country will meet Biden’s target of having 70% of American adults at least partially vaccinated by July 4. The figure stands at just under 65%.

As of a week ago, the U.S. was averaging about 1 million injections per day, down from a high of about 3.3 million a day on average in mid-April, according to the CDC.

At nearly every turn in the outbreak, the virus has exploited and worsened inequalities in the United States. CDC figures, when adjusted for age and population, show that Black, Latino and Native American people are two to three times more likely than whites to die of COVID-19.

Also, an Associated Press analysis found that Latinos were dying at much younger ages than other groups. Latino people ages 30 to 39 have died at five times the rate of white people in the same age group.

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Overall, Black and Latino Americans have less access to medical care and are in poorer health, with higher rates of conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure. They are also more likely to have jobs deemed essential, less able to work from home and more likely to live in crowded, multigenerational households.

The first known deaths from the virus in the U.S. were in early February 2020. It took four months to reach the first 100,000 dead. During the most lethal phase of the disaster, in the winter of 2020-21, it took just over a month to go from 300,000 to 400,000 deaths.

With the crisis now easing, it took close to four months for the U.S. death toll to go from a half a million to 600,000.


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