February 23, 2021

500K+ Americans have died from Covid-19. Can the US now turn the epidemic's tide?

Daily Briefing

    The United States on Monday reached a grim milestone, reporting a total of more than 500,000 American deaths linked to the novel coronavirus since the country's epidemic began. But officials say the country now has a chance to turn the epidemic's tide—though success will rely on the vaccine rollout, the effect of new variants of the virus, and more.

    More than 500,000 deaths in a year's time

    The United States' reported total of American deaths linked to the novel coronavirus surpassed 500,000 on Monday, just about one year after U.S. officials had reported America's first confirmed death linked to the virus, Axios reports. In February 2020, U.S. officials began reporting the first known deaths linked to the novel coronavirus in the country, with America's earliest known death linked to the virus occurring on Feb. 6, 2020, in Santa Clara County, Calif.

    Nearly four months after the epidemic's first known death had occurred, U.S. officials by May 273 had reported the country's first 100,000 deaths linked to the virus. And in another four months, U.S. officials had reported 200,000 deaths tied to the virus. The country's rate of reported coronavirus deaths then started accelerating, with the United States reaching 300,000 deaths linked to the virus in another three months and more than 400,000 deaths just five weeks after, on Jan. 16. In about another five weeks, U.S. officials had reported more than 500,000 deaths linked to the virus.

    The United States has reported the highest coronavirus-death total of any country in the world, with the United States now accounting for about 20% of the world's reported total of deaths linked to the virus—though the country makes up just 4.25% of the world's population, the New York Times reports.

    Although the United States' rate of newly reported deaths linked to the novel coronavirus has declined in recent weeks, it remains high. According to data from the Times, U.S. officials reported about 1,454 new deaths linked to the virus on Monday. As of Tuesday morning, officials had reported a total of about 500,104 U.S. deaths linked to the virus since the country's epidemic began.

    'Remember those we lost' and 'remain vigilant'

    On Monday, President Biden, first lady Jill Biden, Vice President Harris, and second gentleman Doug Emhoff participated in a candle-lighting ceremony and observed a moment of silence at the White House to reflect on the more than 500,000 Americans who lost their lives to the new coronavirus.

    In personal remarks from the White House, Biden said that the United States' surpassing 500,000 deaths linked to the virus is "truly [a] grim, heartbreaking milestone."

    "As a nation, we can't accept such a cruel fate," Biden said. "While we have been fighting this pandemic for so long, we have to resist becoming numb to the sorrow. We have to resist viewing each life as a statistic or a blur or on the news. We must do so to honor the dead but, equally important, care for the living, for those left behind."

    Biden urged Americans to continue practicing physical distancing, wearing face masks, and following other public health measures aimed at halting the coronavirus's spread.

    "Today I ask all Americans to remember, remember those we lost, those we left behind. But as we all remember, I also ask us to act, to remain vigilant, to stay socially distant, to mask up. Get vaccinated when it's your turn," Biden said. "We must end the politics and misinformation that has divided families, communities, and the country and has cost too many lives already. It's not Democrats and Republicans who are dying from the virus; it's our fellow Americans."

    Separately, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said the more than 500,000 American deaths linked to the novel coronavirus are "a truly tragic reminder of the enormity of this pandemic." She added that while the United States in recent weeks has seen "trends" related to the epidemic "head in the right direction … cases, hospital admissions, and deaths remain at very high levels."

    Can the US turn the epidemic's tide?

    Jeffrey Shaman, a professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia University who has modeled the novel coronavirus's spread, said the epidemic's "magnitude … is just horrifying." According to Shaman, the United States' failure to control the virus's spread throughout 2020 led to the country's high death toll.

    But now, scientists and public health officials say the United States has a chance to change the epidemic's trajectory—though doing so will largely depend on America's Covid-19 vaccine rollout, the effect of new variants of the virus, and how closely Americans adhere to public health measures intended to slow the virus's spread, the Times reports.

    As Walensky noted, the United States' reported rates of new coronavirus cases, hospitalizations, and deaths remain high. According to data compiled by the Times, for instance, U.S. officials on Monday reported about 59,462 new cases of the virus. As of Tuesday morning, officials had reported a total of about 28.2 million cases of the novel coronavirus since the United States' epidemic began.

    According to the Times, the United States' average daily number of newly reported coronavirus cases over the past week was 66,977—down by 40% when compared with the average from two weeks ago. However, the Times' data showed that, as of Tuesday morning, the rates of newly reported coronavirus cases were "staying high" in Alaska, Idaho, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, South Dakota, and Wyoming, which have each reported a daily average of at least 15 newly reported cases per 100,000 people over the past week.

    According to the data, rates of newly reported coronavirus cases were "staying low" or declining from previously higher rates in the remaining U.S. territories and states.

    Meanwhile, U.S. hospitalizations for Covid-19 remained high as of Monday, though they've reached their lowest level since November 2020. According to data from The Atlantic's COVID Tracking Project, there were 55,403 Americans with Covid-19 hospitalized for treatment on Monday, including 11,536 who were receiving care in an ICU and 3,804 who were on a ventilator.

    Experts say the recent drops in newly reported coronavirus cases, deaths, and hospitalizations are encouraging, but they also worry the United States could see another spike in new cases of the virus, in part because new and more transmissible variants of the virus are spreading throughout the country. According to data from CDC, the United States as of Sunday reported 1,688 total cases of novel coronavirus variants across 44 U.S. states and territories, including:

    • 1,661 cases of the B.1.1.7 variant first identified in the United Kingdom, which research suggests is more transmissible and may be less susceptible to current Covid-19 vaccines than earlier variants of the novel coronavirus, as well as potentially more deadly than earlier variants of the virus;
    • 22 cases of the B.1.351 variant first identified in South Africa, which research suggests is more transmissible and may be less susceptible to current Covid-19 vaccines than earlier variants of the virus; and
    • Five cases of the P.1 variant first identified in Brazil, which research suggests is more transmissible and may be less susceptible to current Covid-19 vaccines than earlier variants of the virus.

    To bolster the United States' response against the new variants, FDA on Monday released a guidance document noting that drugmakers will not have to conduct lengthy randomized and controlled clinical trials to evaluate Covid-19 vaccines adapted to target the new variants. Instead, FDA is recommending that drugmakers conduct small trials on the tweaked vaccines, which is similar to what the agency requires for annual flu vaccines.

    According to experts, FDA's new guidance could help to accelerate the review of Covid-19 vaccines that are modified to better target new coronavirus variants, which could in turn help the United States maintain its recent progress in containing the country's coronavirus epidemic.

    But continuing that progress also will hinge on whether Americans continue following public health measures aimed at curbing the novel coronavirus's spread, even as some states and localities lift restrictions on risky activities such as indoor dining and social gatherings, experts and officials say.

    "Now we peaked, we turned around and we're coming down," Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and chief medical adviser for the White House's Covid-19 response, said. "But we're still at a weekly average of [about] 68,000 infections. Now is not the time to say, 'We're doing really well, let's pull back'" (Rummler, Axios, 2/22; Wootson/Achenbach, Washington Post, 2/22; Tompkins et al., New York Times, 2/22; Chalfant, The Hill, 2/22; Burton, Wall Street Journal, 2/22; Weiland et al., New York Times, 2/22; CDC variants data, updated 2/21; New York Times, 2/23; "COVID Tracking Project," The Atlantic, accessed 2/23).

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