The nation’s coronavirus death toll surpassed 100,000 in less than four months on Wednesday, a heart-rending inflection point in a pandemic that has profoundly altered Americans’ daily lives, ravaged the U.S. economy and put the country’s bare-knuckle political disunity on display for all the world to see.
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The first U.S. death was reported Feb. 29, a patient in the Seattle area, but several earlier fatalities — not attributed at the time to COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus — have since come to light. Today, the United States, despite its wealth and scientific prowess, has the world’s highest numbers of both cases and deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University’s widely cited global tracker.
The efforts to contain the contagion have closed businesses, sent unemployment to Depression-era levels, spurred Congress to pass four relief measures totaling nearly $3 trillion, with more promised, and upended the year’s political contests for the White House and control of Congress.
The loss of lives reflected in the tragic new milestone has put President Trump’s reelection at risk, as numerous polls show widespread belief among voters that he has mismanaged the crisis — from his early denials of a problem and promise of zero deaths to his erratic stewardship of the response once the death count began.
Spurred partly by Trump’s defiant rhetoric and example, even the responses recommended by his own public health experts — social distancing, wearing masks, staying home — have come to divide Americans along partisan lines after an initial period of broad adherence to the unprecedented limits on their way of life. He has urged the nation to “reopen” and has consistently refused to wear a mask in public, going so far as to mock his Democratic rival for the presidency, former Vice President Joe Biden, for doing so at a Memorial Day observance.
James Plummer, left, funeral director at Angelus Funeral Home, sprinkles rose petals over the casket as Nicholas Jackson, center, son of the deceased, grieves for Charles Jackson Jr., who died in April.
(Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)
Employees of the Jay Chapel Funeral Home in Madera, Calif., transport the body of Wanda DeSelle, 76, to a grave site. Family members had to remain in their cars during the burial on April 8.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Workers wearing protective equipment bury bodies in a trench on Hart Island in the Bronx borough of New York on April 9.
(John Minchillo / Associated Press)
Medical personnel remove bodies from the Wyckoff Heights Medical Center in Brooklyn on April 2.
(Mary Altaffer / Associated Press)
A view through a window at the Angelus Funeral Home of the service for Charles Jackson Jr., who died in April.
(Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)
Mourners stand by the casket of Air Force veteran Mary Foley, 93, in Malden, Mass., on April 8. Because of the coronavirus crisis, Foley could not be given a formal military funeral.
(Elise Amendola / Associated Press)
Brian Elias of the L.A. County coroner’s office on April 15 stands near 12 refrigerated containers brought in to prepare for a surge in COVID-19 fatalities.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
Omar Martinez displays a photo from his parents’ wedding on his phone on April 25 in West Liberty, Iowa. His parents and sister all contracted COVID-19. His father died.
(Charlie Neibergall / Associated Press)
A funeral home in New York’s Queens borough stores bodies in its chapel on May 11.
(Andrew Lichtenstein / Getty Images)
A nurse covers an emergency room patient with a blanket at San Jose Regional Medical Center on May 21. Santa Clara County, where the medical center is located, had the earliest known COVID-19 deaths in the United States.
(Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)
Flags, wreaths and notes adorn the grounds of the Holyoke Soldiers Home in Holyoke, Mass., on April 28.
(Barry Chin / Boston Globe )
Activists from the Rise and Resist and Indivisible Brooklyn movements carry body bags symbolizing those who have died from COVID-19 to the Trump International Hotel and Tower in New York City.
(Gabriele Holtermann / Pacific Press)
Yet the state and local efforts nationwide since mid-March to limit social interaction, to shutdown schools and all but essential businesses and to encourage millions of Americans to work from home did limit the spread of infections, studies and disease models suggested. In mid-May, a research team at Columbia University reported that if such measures had been taken a week earlier, about 36,000 fewer people would have died; had the restrictions been imposed two weeks earlier, on March 1, about 54,000 fewer deaths would have occurred.
In early March, however, Trump was opposed to such steps. On March 9 he suggested in a tweet that the coronavirus infection was no worse than a seasonal flu and added, “Nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on. At this moment there are 546 confirmed cases of CoronaVirus, with 22 deaths. Think about that!”
Unrepentant about such statements, on Tuesday the president claimed without evidence on Twitter that but for his early actions to restrict travel from China, 1.5 million to 2 million lives would have been lost.
As elsewhere in the world, elderly people and those rendered vulnerable by preexisting medical conditions have accounted for most U.S. deaths. But the virus has sickened all age groups, including children afflicted by what remains a little-understood inflammatory syndrome.
Quickly, New York City became the nation’s focal point of disease, and Los Angeles was an early hot spot as well, partly reflecting both cities’ status as hubs of international travel. After New York’s springtime season of death — marked by the sight of refrigerated trucks serving as temporary morgues and drone footage of mass graves on an island that typically was a repository of unclaimed dead — New York’s Gov. Andrew Cuomo saw progress Saturday as the state reported daily deaths Friday had dropped to 84, the first day since late March that the toll dipped below 100.
Since mysterious cases of pneumonia began surfacing in the Chinese city of Wuhan late last year, the coronavirus has hopscotched the globe, with more than 5.6 million confirmed cases and more than 350,000 deaths worldwide. Initial attempts at secrecy by China’s authoritarian government stifled early efforts to understand and contain the virus.
By mid-February, the outbreak had leaped from Asia to Europe, where it began devastating northern Italy before spreading to Spain, France and elsewhere. A deadly flare-up raged in Iran. Countries began imposing travel bans, but not before international travelers — continent-hopping businesspeople and tourists, cruise-ship passengers and crews — seeded far-flung eruptions of disease.
On March 11, the World Health Organization designated the outbreak a pandemic. Two days later, Trump declared a national emergency.
The virus’ rapid spread was met with a hodgepodge of efforts to contain it, a worldwide phenomenon that was echoed in the patchwork of responses in U.S. states. Success varied widely. As hospitalizations and deaths accelerated, Trump veered from claiming absolute authority to telling states to largely fend for themselves in providing testing and crucial medical supplies.
By mid-March, the world was locking itself down. Across the United States, schools closed, workplaces emptied, businesses shuttered. The stock market cratered, wobbled, spiked, then ebbed anew, as traders repeatedly seized on any report of a potential treatment or vaccine to send stock-buying up even as the losses of jobs and lives mounted.
Healthcare workers, from doctors to hospital cleaners to nursing home aides, found themselves on the pandemic’s front lines, with some of them documenting firsthand the agony of watching patients die, separated from their families by strict protocols meant to stem new infections. Working-class Americans including grocery clerks, bus drivers and meatpackers were called “essential” workers but realized that their jobs put them at previously unimaginable peril.
As the nation neared the threshold of 100,000 deaths over a week that included Memorial Day, when the nation mourns its war dead, the somber symbolism was lost on few. Among the victims have been many aged veterans.
Yet the holiday weekend, which traditionally has marked the start of summer, this year seemed to signal long-homebound Americans’ impatience with social distancing. Many sought a return to normalcy at the seashore, at lakesides and in countless parks and backyards — many without taking the recommended precautions.
“Pray and think about those that passed in our former wars,” urged Tom Bossert, Trump’s former homeland security advisor, in an interview Sunday on ABC’s “This Week,” “but also about those that passed in the last three months.”