The coronavirus pandemic reached a grim milestone Monday as the number of known deaths in U.S. due to COVID-19 reached 500,000. The number of American deaths is the most in the world and comes a year after much of the country was just starting to hear about a deadly respiratory disease in Wuhan, China. By late January last year, reports of the virus’s spread began to make global headlines, soon cruise ships were being quarantined in ports, as uncertainty grew. The first known case of the virus in the U.S. dates back to Feb. 6 of last year, in Southern California. Over the next three-and-half months, 100,000 Americans would die, as millions more would stay home.
It was a terrifying moment, but one that would get worse. Over the next year, 1 in 670 Americans would die from COVID-19, and, after a brief slowdown over the warmer summer months, the number of deaths would accelerate. Even now, as the country frantically vaccinates, at least 100,000 people died in just the past five weeks. The coronavirus was the leading cause of death in January 2021, passing common killers, like cancer and heart disease. The pandemic’s deadliest day in America came this year—on Jan. 12—when 4,400 people died.
The U.S. had unique resources and capacity to fight the virus, which makes its record-setting failure to do so all the more wrenching, personal, and unnecessary. It was a failure of leadership, a failure of systems created by generations of leaders, and of people that selected those people that created and entrenched those systems. The blame is not shared equally, but it is shared.
On Monday evening, President Joe Biden held a memorial service at the White House to mark the mass loss of life. “We often hear people described as ordinary Americans,” Biden said in a televised address. “There’s nothing ordinary about them. The people we lost were extraordinary, they span generations, born in America and immigrated to America. But just like that, so many of them took their final breath alone in America.” Biden has ordered flags flying at federal building be lowered to half-staff over the next five days to mark the loss.