150,000 Americans have died from Covid-19. Here's why that staggering loss of life can't be ignored
Posted July 29, 2020 4:10 p.m. EDT
CNN — If two large planes crashed every day in the US, killing everyone on board, the nation would be despondent.
If the US suffered a loss of life on the scale of the 9/11 attacks -- 50 times over -- the tragedy would be incomprehensible.
But that's how many lives coronavirus has claimed in the US since this pandemic started just six months ago.
More than 150,000 people have died since the first known US death in February. That means every day, an average of more than 850 Americans have died from Covid-19.
It's easy to grow numb or turn a blind eye to the losses. But there are several reasons why these numbers shouldn't be ignored -- and several ways to turn the tide around.
0.05% will quickly grow
So far, about 0.05% of the US population has died from the novel coronavirus.
That might sound like a tiny number. But we still have a long way to go before reaching herd immunity.
Herd immunity generally happens when 70% to 90% of a population becomes immune to an infectious disease -- either because people have been infected and recovered, or because they've been vaccinated.
But a vaccine might not be publicly available for several more months. And only about 13% of the US population has been infected with Covid-19 as of Tuesday -- meaning many more infections (and deaths) will likely follow before herd immunity.
In fact, the US death toll is expected to reach 208,255 by November 1, according to the University of Washington's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.
At this rate, the US will likely endure 300,000 deaths by the end of this year, said Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor University School of Medicine.
Covid-19 is already a leading cause of death in some places
A disease that didn't even exist one year ago is now one of the leading causes of death in parts of the US.
"In many states, like Texas, Florida, Arizona, Covid-19 once again is the single leading daily cause of death," Hotez said Tuesday.
Covid-19 is also one of the top killers in Los Angeles County, behind coronary heart disease, county health director Barbara Ferrer said.
"It's killing more people than Alzheimer's disease, other kinds of heart disease, stroke, and COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease)," Ferrer said.
Nationwide, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention doesn't rank leading causes of deaths until the end of the year so it can analyze a full year's worth of data.
But last week, CDC statisticians told CNN they expect Covid-19 will rank in the top 10.
The 150,000 death toll from seven months of Covid-19 has already surpassed the death tolls from other conditions for an entire year -- including stroke, Alzheimer's disease, diabetes and the flu.
In 2018 -- the latest year for which CDC cause-of-death data are available -- 147,810 people died from strokes, 122,019 from Alzheimer's disease, 84,946 from diabetes, and 59,120 from flu and pneumonia.
But even if you or your loved ones survive after catching Covid-19, long-term consequences could fester.
"Remember, it's not just the deaths. It's this terrible, disabling ... long-lasting disabilities to the lung, to the vascular system, to the heart, to the brain," Hotez said. "We're seeing long-term cognitive deficits. This is a terrible illness."
It could happen to any of your loved ones
Countless families have lost relatives far earlier than they imagined -- including young people with no pre-existing conditions.
But with the highly infectious nature of this virus, many loved ones have been forced to say their final goodbyes by cell phone call or video chat.
Joe Lewinger was 42 and healthy before he caught Covid-19, his wife Maura said.
But Joe's condition deteriorated rapidly, and Maura asked a doctor to connect them via FaceTime so she could have a final moment with her husband.
Soon afterward, the doctor said Joe's pulse was gone.
"I played our wedding song for him," Maura said. "And then that was it."
Nicole Buchanan didn't even get to say goodbye to her husband.
Conrad Buchanan, a 39-year-old DJ, had been repeatedly denied a Covid-19 test because he was young and had no underlying health issues, his wife said.
Eventually, Conrad's condition got so bad that Nicole dropped him off at a hospital entrance and went to park the car. That was the last time she saw her husband.
"I walked up to the doors. The hospital's on lockdown. They wouldn't let anybody in after that," she said. "I never got to say, 'I love you.'"
'We don't have to go through this'
The good news: Now that scientists know more about how this virus spreads, many future deaths can be averted even without a vaccine. But that requires personal responsibility.
Top health officials keep stressing the same safety measures that often get ignored: stay at least 6 feet away from others, wash your hands frequently, and wear a face mask.
About 45,447 lives could be saved between July and November if 95% of Americans wore face masks in public, the IHME researchers said.
If everyone wore masks, that would drive down the projected death toll from 208,255 down to 162,808.
But at this rate, the US is still likely to suffer a total of 200,000 deaths by this fall, said Dr. Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute.
"Of course, all of this is completely unnecessary. We don't have to go through this," Jha said.
"We're going through it because we're just not doing the basic stuff that we need to do to suppress the virus."