I’m USA TODAY editor-in-chief Nicole Carroll, and this is The Backstory, insights into our biggest stories of the week. If you’d like to get The Backstory in your inbox every week, sign up here.
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The image was stunning. Four hundred pillars of light surrounded the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool, honoring the more than 400,000 in the United States who’ve died due to COVID-19.
President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris chose to start their inauguration activities this week remembering lives lost. The scene was stunning in its aesthetic and its message: These were our mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers. Friends and neighbors. Our children. They mattered.
The ceremony came on Tuesday, the same day the United States topped 400,000 deaths. The number of COVID-19 deaths has now passed the number of Americans who died in World War II. Since Dec. 1, nine Americans have died of COVID-19 every five minutes.
The average U.S. Life expectancy has fallen by 1.13 years, to 77.48 years, due to the pandemic, a recent study says. The drop is even larger in Black and Latino communities.
And now, even as new cases show a decline, we remain in the deadliest phase of the pandemic so far. It took a year for us to reach 400,000 deaths – 14.8% of those reported in January alone. Experts estimate it could take just four weeks more to hit 500,000.
Still, there are those who say COVID-19 deaths, and concern, are exaggerated.
Early numbers show the U.S. had 400,000 more deaths in 2020 than in 2019. As a nation, we’ve lost more than 400,000 to COVID-19 in one year. These two numbers are related.
“Health experts say that looking at excess mortality is one of the best ways to prove the COVID-19 death toll is not exaggerated or inflated,” said health reporter Adrianna Rodriguez.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 2,835,533 U.S. Deaths in 2019. Rodriguez talked to Dr. Jeremy Faust, an emergency physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, who said models had predicted about 2.9 million deaths for 2020 – that would have been a “bad year.”.
But 2020 was much worse.
“Final figures aren’t yet in, but preliminary numbers show 2020 is on track to become the deadliest year in U.S. History, with more than 3.2 million total deaths – about 400,000 more than 2019,” Rodriguez reported Thursday.
The United States reached 406,162 COVID-19 deaths Thursday, according to Johns Hopkins data. Health experts say it’s not a coincidence that the 400,000 excess deaths closely resemble the number of coronavirus deaths in the U.S.
“That is not a seasonal change or just a random bad year,” Faust told Rodriguez. “That is what every person who can correctly attest to these numbers can plainly see is a historic increase in excess mortality. If we put that together with the number of coronavirus deaths it’s game, set, match.”.
Biden has made COVID-19 a top priority. His “wartime” plan calls for more funding to add clinics and public health workers to meet an ambitious goal: Administering 100 million COVID-19 shots in the first 100 days of his administration.
Such an aggressive rollout of the vaccine is “aspirational” but “theoretically doable if everything goes right,” Dr. William Schaffner, a Vanderbilt University School of Medicine professor of preventive medicine, told health reporter Ken Alltucker.
Of 35.9 million doses distributed as of Thursday, 16.5 million have been administered, according to the CDC, Alltucker reported.
Biden also signed executive orders Thursday that would require masks in most planes, trains and airports; order a national strategy to reopen schools; and create a new “testing board” to expand testing for the virus, reported White House correspondent Joey Garrison, noting that several priorities are contingent on passage of Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package.
The president will also invoke the Defense Production Act to boost the supply of testing and vaccination supplies, among a range of other orders and directives, Garrison reported.
“You can’t vaccinate unless you have vaccine,” Schaffner said. “Even if you have vaccine, you have to have a good program on the ground to actually get the vaccine into arms.”.
But will the nation follow Biden’s lead? There are still many who say “98 to 99% of people survive the virus, I’m not worried.” “I’m not going to change my lifestyle.” “I don’t need a vaccine.”
Carrie Hebert is angry at the callousness. At those who say the overall 1.7% U.S. Death rate isn’t cause for alarm.
“Well, you know what, that could be my daughter,” she said, “I take that personally.”.
Hebert’s daughter is my niece, a 29-year-old newlywed from Phoenix. She’s been on a ventilator fighting COVID-19 since Jan. 6. Hebert’s entire family came down with the virus. Hebert’s husband was hospitalized as well, but is now home.
If Arizona were a country, it would be among the world’s worst for rates of both new cases and deaths, Johns Hopkins University data shows. In recent days, the state’s deaths and case counts have fallen significantly, but it’s not clear if those improvements will be sustained.
Doctors hope my niece will come off the ventilator in the coming days. “We’re not out of the woods,” Hebert said. “I’m not going to feel better until she’s home.” And even then, there will be physical and occupational therapy to gain back strength and basic skills.
“So, it’s not just that 1 to 2% die,” Hebert said. “They die a horrible death. They die gasping for breath. And even for people who survive, it’s not good.”.
Which brings us back to the memorial – and the message. Will America acknowledge that the 400,000 deaths are real and too many? That another 100,000 are expected to die in the next four weeks? And that those who survive can face long-term health problems? Will we come together to fight what Biden calls the “dark winter” ahead?
“We’re entering what may be the toughest and deadliest period of the virus,” Biden said in his inaugural address. “We must set aside politics and finally face this pandemic as one nation. One nation.”.
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Nicole Carroll is the editor-in-chief of USA TODAY. Reach her at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter here. Thank you for supporting our journalism. You can subscribe to our print edition, ad-free experience or electronic newspaper replica here.