US tops 500,000 virus deaths, matching the toll of 3 wars

Adam Geller
Associated Press

The COVID-19 death toll in the U.S. topped 500,000 Monday, all but matching the number of Americans killed in World War II, Korea and Vietnam combined.

The lives lost, as recorded by Johns Hopkins University, are about equal to the population of Kansas City, Missouri, and greater than that of Miami; Raleigh, North Carolina; or Omaha, Nebraska.

And despite the rollout of vaccines since mid-December, a closely watched model from the University of Washington projects more than 589,000 dead by June 1.

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Chaplain Kristin Michealsen holds the hand of a deceased COVID-19 patient on Jan. 9 while talking on the phone with the patient's family member at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in the Mission Hills section of Los Angeles. "I have never seen this much of death and suffering," said Michealsen, who has been a chaplain for 13 years. "I often tell families that I'm holding their loved one's hand when they can't and that I am with them when they are dying when they can't be."

The U.S. toll is by far the highest reported in the world, and the true numbers are thought to be significantly greater, in part because of the many cases that were overlooked, especially early in the outbreak.

Average daily deaths and cases have plummeted in the past few weeks, but experts warn that dangerous variants could cause the trend to reverse itself.

For Sheryl McPherson, 59, of Detroit, the milestone is a grim reminder of what the vicious virus has taken from her family. In April, McPherson lost her 84-year-old father, Rutherford Melvin. After a week in the hospital, Melvin died the same day doctors planned to place him on a ventilator.

“It hurts to talk about it most of the time," she said. "Sometimes I’m looking at TV and they’re talking about people with COVID … and I have to turn it off, I don’t listen to it. I don’t listen to radio because all they talk about is COVID, COVID, COVID. I don’t want to hear that."

Michigan health experts say they'll use the moment as motivation to continue fighting the virus that has altered lives globally. And they warn life might not return to normal as quickly as expected after widespread vaccinations.

“This has just been really a sobering experience for all of us," said Nick Gilpin, system medical director for infection prevention at Beaumont Health Systems. "... I want to believe that the extensive loss of life from this pandemic has really not been in vain. Treatments are getting better. Our knowledge of the virus and how it spreads and how to prevent transmission is getting better. The fact that we’re talking about a vaccine right now in a relatively short amount of time is a great thing for us.”

Bob Riney said it would be difficult to tell if the worst of the pandemic has passed. The COO and president of healthcare operations for Henry Ford Health Systems looks to the nation's top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, who said COVID-19 soon will move into an endemic phase, where the disease spread is controlled but present. 

“... We’re going to have to recognize that there’s some adjustments that we’ll have to make,” Riney said. “It’ll include things like a lot more virtual care when appropriate. It’ll include things like temperature checks or screenings … mask-wearing will become a stain in certain activities and certain environments … but I think if we do that, we can turn this into something that’s managed on a yearly basis the way we do influenza.”

Some experts say not enough Americans have been inoculated yet for the vaccine to make much of a difference.

Instead, the drop-off in deaths and cases has been attributed to the passing of the holidays; the cold and bleak days of midwinter, when many people are inclined to stay home; and better adherence to mask rules and social distancing.

The first known deaths from the virus in the U.S. happened in early February 2020. It took four months to reach the first 100,000 dead. The toll hit 200,000 deaths in September and 300,000 in December. Then it took just over a month to go from 300,000 to 400,000 and about two months to climb from 400,000 to the brink of 500,000.

The U.S. recorded an estimated 405,000 deaths in World War II, 58,000 in the Vietnam War and 36,000 in the Korean War.

As of Monday, Michigan has recorded 15,362 deaths and 581,403 cases since the virus was first detected in the state in March, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services. 

Detroit News Staff Writer Ariana Taylor contributed.