Almost 37,000 Americans died of the coronavirus in November, a grim number that approached May’s toll — and health officials are worried that the numbers will spike further as many people ignored pleas to remain home during Thanksgiving.
Amid the surge in cases, states have begun reopening field hospitals, overburdened hospitals are setting up mobile morgues and funerals are being livestreamed or performed as drive-by services.
“I have no doubt that we’re going to see a climbing death toll … and that’s a horrific and tragic place to be,” Josh Michaud, associate director of global health policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation, told The Associated Press.
“It’s going to be a very dark couple of weeks,” he added.
Although November’s tally was far lower than the 60,699 recorded in April, it was dangerously close to the next-highest total of almost 42,000 in May, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.
In June, deaths had dropped to just over 20,000 after states closed many businesses and ordered people to stay at home.
As of Wednesday, 270,881 people died of the virus in the US, where about 13.7 million cases have been recorded, according to Johns Hopkins.
The rapidly deteriorating situation is particularly vexing because vaccine distribution could begin within weeks, Michaud said.
New York City, the epicenter of the US outbreak earlier in the year, reopened a field hospital last week on Staten Island.
In Missouri, a mobile morgue that Mercy Hospital Springfield acquired in 2011 after a tornado slammed nearby Joplin and killed about 160 people has been put into use again.
On Sunday, it held two bodies until funeral home workers could arrive.
In St. Louis, burials are up by about one-third this year compared with last year at the Bellefontaine Cemetery.
The cremated remains of some 20 people are being kept in storage while their families wait for a safer time to hold memorial services.
“You want to be safe at the gravesite so you don’t have to do another graveside service” for another relative, said Richard Lay, Bellefontaine Cemetery’s vice president.
In Massachusetts, meanwhile, the National Guard delivered cots, medical supplies and other items for a 250-bed field hospital in Worcester in case the state’s medical centers become overwhelmed.
Wisconsin has a field hospital in West Allis ready to take overflow patients, a Nevada hospital has added hospital bed capacity in a parking garage and Rhode Island opened two field hospitals with more than 900 beds combined.
“Hospitals all around the country are worried on a day-to-day basis about their capacity … and we’re not really even into winter season and we haven’t seen the impact of Thanksgiving travel and Thanksgiving gatherings,” said Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.
“You can’t just say we’ll have doctors and nurses from other states come because those other states are also dealing with COVID patients,” he added.