U.S. Hits Grim Milestone of 1 Million COVID Deaths

Just over two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 1,000,000 Americans have died from the virus

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In September 2021, 650,000 small plastic flags, some with personal messages to those who have died, went up around the Washington Monument to recognize the Americans lost to COVID-19. Photo: Kent Nishimura / Getty

May 12, 2022 marked a grim, but anticipated milestone — just over two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 1 million Americans have died from the virus.

The number is one that felt unimaginable at the start of the pandemic in March 2020, when COVID-19 was just beginning to spread around the country. But as cases started to soar, deaths did too.

By April 2020, the U.S. began seeing around 1,000 deaths a day as hospitals filled up with patients, and doctors and nurses were unsure how best to treat the tricky virus, which attacks everything from the respiratory system to the brain and heart.

Mitigation efforts like masks helped, and new infections and deaths dipped down in the spring before people eager to socialize again led to another rise that summer.

And over the holiday season, with people heading back indoors amid the cold weather and celebrating holidays with family, cases soared upwards and deaths hit their highest levels ever. On Jan. 12, 2021, the U.S. recorded the most-ever deaths in a day with 4,406, a level that has not been seen since.

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Refrigerated trucks holding the bodies of COVID-19 victims sit in New York City. Noam Galai/Getty
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An aerial view of the 650,000 flags placed on the National Mall to recognize the Americans lost to COVID-19. Kent Nishimura / Getty

With the nation recording an average of 2,500 to 3,500 deaths a day through January and February 2021, the death toll soon surpassed 500,000, half a million.

That period, though, was also the start of the U.S.'s effort to vaccinate the country with the three newly approved COVID-19 vaccines from Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson. By April, every adult was eligible for a vaccine, and the highly effective formulas led deaths to drop significantly, from the highs of 4,000 a day to around 200 a day by July.

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But despite having these vaccines on hand, millions of Americans refused to get vaccinated, and a new, severe COVID-19 variant — delta — ravaged the unvaccinated, leading to thousands of deaths. By December 2021, the death toll hit 800,000.

That winter brought a new variant, omicron, that was highly contagious but mild, leading to less severe illnesses, especially for vaccinated people. Cases soared to the highest levels yet, but deaths stayed lower than the peaks from the year before. Still, by Feb. 2022, deaths had surpassed 900,000.

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Activists gather during a vigil in Lafayette Park for nurses who died during the COVID-19 pandemic in Jan. 2022. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty

As of May 12, the U.S. is still averaging around 330 deaths a day. The number of deaths is by far the most of any country in the world, and astronomically high for one of the richest countries in the world. The next closest country in number of deaths is Brazil, with 664,750.

The first U.S. death likely occurred on Feb. 7, 2020, in a woman who died at home in Santa Clara County, Calif., based on autopsy samples performed by the Centers for Disease Control. Now 27 months later, an unimaginably quick rate, the country has lost 999,999 more lives.

In a statement commemorating the "tragic" milestone, President Joe Biden gave his prayers to the families who have lost loved ones, and called on Congress to pass the COVID spending bill, which provides resources for testing, vaccinations and hospital bills; the bill has been held up for months.

"As a nation, we must not grow numb to such sorrow," Biden said. "To heal, we must remember. We must remain vigilant against this pandemic and do everything we can to save as many lives as possible, as we have with more testing, vaccines, and treatments than ever before. It's critical that Congress sustain these resources in the coming months."

"To those who are grieving, and asking yourself how will you go on without him or what will you do without her, I understand. I know the pain of that black hole in your heart. It is unrelenting. But I also know the ones you love are never truly gone. They will always be with you."

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