More than a quarter-million Americans have died from complications of COVID-19, the disease caused by a coronavirus that is tearing massive holes in states across the nation, as health experts warn the death toll could double in the coming months.
NBC News reported the death toll crossed the 250,000 mark on Wednesday. Other counts maintained by Johns Hopkins University and The New York Times were slightly below that figure.
The United States continues to be the epicenter of the pandemic, accounting for a hugely disproportionate share of cases and deaths even as the virus begins spreading more widely in European countries.
Virtually every indicator in the U.S. is flashing bright red alarms: The country has recorded more than 100,000 new cases on every day since the Nov. 3 election. More than 73,000 Americans are being treated in hospitals, an all-time high. Of those, 14,000 are in intensive care units. The number of tests conducted on a given day is rising, but so too is the percentage of those tests that come back positive, a sign that the virus is spreading faster than testing is expanding.
“This is a disaster waiting to happen,” said Kelli Drenner, a public health expert at the University of Houston. “People are letting their guard down, expanding their bubbles.”
If states were counted individually against other nations, 15 of the 20 worst outbreaks in the world on a per capita basis would be American states. Eight states — the Dakotas, Iowa, Wyoming, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Montana — have worse per capita outbreaks than any other country in the world. Case counts increased in 46 states and the District of Columbia week over week.
Fourteen states recorded more than 30,000 new cases in the last week. Illinois reported the highest number, 85,742. Only three states — Vermont, Maine and Hawaii — saw fewer than one in a thousand residents test positive for the virus last week.
Little over a month after President TrumpDonald John Trump46 percent of voters say Trump should concede immediately: poll Michigan county reverses course, votes unanimously to certify election results GOP senator: Trump shouldn’t fire top cybersecurity official MORE required supplemental oxygen as he was treated for the virus, COVID-19 has continued to spread through the upper echelons of American government.
Rep. Don YoungDonald (Don) Edwin YoungColorado Democrat Ed Perlmutter tests positive for coronavirus Don Young says he’s been discharged after hospitalization for COVID-19 Bustos tests positive for COVID-19 MORE (R-Alaska), the oldest member of the House of Representatives, said he had been hospitalized for treatment for the disease. Senate President Pro Tem Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyColorado Democrat Ed Perlmutter tests positive for coronavirus On The Money: Trump’s controversial Fed nominee stalled | Economists warn of lag time between vaccine and recovery | Business group calls for national mask mandate, COVID-19 relief Grassley tests positive for coronavirus MORE (R-Iowa) is quarantining after being exposed to someone who had the virus. Several members of Congress and at least one member-elect who won election just weeks ago have tested positive in recent days.
Improvements in treating the disease and a substantial shift in the populations most affected to younger generations have meant that the mortality rate from the coronavirus has fallen significantly since the earliest days of the pandemic. But the exponential growth of cases means that the death toll is likely to rise in the coming weeks.
“We can’t stop that wave. It’s already coming,” said Eric Feigl-Ding, a senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists. “Usually, hospitalizations lag by around a week and a half, two weeks. Deaths lag by three weeks. Those deaths have not hit us yet. Those deaths will hit us after Thanksgiving and into December.”
The third apex of the coronavirus pandemic is vastly outpacing the April and July zeniths in severity, and it shows no signs of bending downward.
At the height of the summer spread, Arizona ranked as the state with the worst outbreak, when 380 people per 100,000 residents tested positive every week. Today, 23 states have worse per capita outbreaks. In North Dakota and South Dakota, more than 1 percent of the population tested positive in the last week.
Health systems are increasingly stretched as doctors and nurses work round-the-clock shifts to save patients. There is such a shortage of medical professionals in North Dakota that those who have tested positive for the virus but who do not show symptoms are being asked to continue coming to work. Officials in El Paso, Texas, have ordered refrigerated morgue trucks to handle the surge of dead bodies.
“Right now, there are no more surplus traveling nurses or traveling doctors. There are none. So every state is on their own. You can add more beds, but it’s not the beds that are limiting anymore,” Feigl-Ding said.
Studies that show two potential vaccine candidates, created by Pfizer and Moderna, are hugely effective in protecting people from infection have given health experts hope that an end to the pandemic is possible. But they warn there are hard months ahead as Americans travel for the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. There may be light at the end of the tunnel, but there is still a significant stretch of tunnel, they said.
Some governors who have been reluctant to order public health measures to curb the virus have finally relented. Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) ordered a statewide mask mandate in indoor settings on Monday; North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum (R) issued a mask mandate last Friday; and Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) imposed new restrictions on bars and restaurants.
“Right now, the pandemic in Iowa is worse than it has ever been,” Reynolds said in a televised address Monday. “Because of the increase we’ve seen over the last two weeks, our health care system is being pushed to the brink.”
National lockdowns have worked to bend the curve downward in several European nations that have recently enacted new restrictions. Data from Switzerland, Spain and Germany are trending better after stay-at-home orders took effect.
But the appetite for such stricter measures does not exist in the United States. And even if some states did impose new orders or quarantine requirements, there is no way to stop interstate travel.
Public health experts fear that the coming holiday season will add fuel to an already out-of-control fire. More transmission is occurring in intimate settings of family and friends, as pandemic fatigue taxes the nation. The Thanksgiving holiday will see millions of those types of gatherings across the country.
“People tend to trust the people around them. But it’s a case of you don’t know about the people who those people have been with,” Drenner said. “You are contagious before you show symptoms, so just because I’m not showing symptoms today doesn’t mean I’m not contagious to you.”