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Biden marks 1 million deaths from COVID-19 in the United States

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

President Biden is marking the loss of at least 1 million deaths from COVID-19 this morning. The ceremony comes as part of an international summit on the pandemic the White House is hosting.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Today we mark a tragic milestone here in the United States - 1 million COVID deaths, 1 million empty chairs around the dinner table.

MARTINEZ: Joining us now is NPR health correspondent Rob Stein. Rob, the U.S. has passed many somber milestones since this pandemic began more than two years ago. But there's something especially sobering about this one. What's the president saying?

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Yeah, it is really sobering. But, you know, the first thing I should say is that the U.S. hasn't quite officially hit 1 million yet. The CDC and Johns Hopkins, which is what NPR uses to track the pandemic, are still just short of 1 million. But regardless, the president is asking the nation not to become numb to the loss - basically, not turn away and to keep up the fight. And, you know, that's because the idea that we've lost at least 1 million people to COVID-19 is obviously so disturbing. I talked about this with Dr. Howard Markel. He's a medical historian at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

HOWARD MARKEL: It just boggles the mind, as if our minds needed anymore boggling from this pandemic. It makes me very sad.

STEIN: And, you know, A, everyone agrees that 1 million is just the tip of the iceberg. The true toll is certainly far higher because many deaths from COVID-19 were blamed on something else.

MARTINEZ: So why? Why has the U.S. suffered so much more than maybe other countries?

STEIN: You know, a big part of it is that the nation has neglected its public health system, you know, leaving it woefully unprepared to respond to the threat. And the virus arrived just when our polarized society quickly politicized the pandemic - you know, especially things like masks and lockdowns and, most importantly, vaccinations. Here's Jessica Malaty Rivera at the Rockefeller Foundation's Pandemic Prevention Institute.

JESSICA MALATY RIVERA: And that hurts. That's really, really devastating to think about - the fact that we now have this incredible tool in our toolkit to very, very successfully prevent things like hospitalization and death, and yet people are still dying from this disease.

STEIN: In fact, you know, at the moment, more than 300 people are still dying every day. And, you know, people are really worried about which direction the pandemic is going to go now.

MARTINEZ: All right, so tell us that then. What's going to happen next with the pandemic?

STEIN: Well, you know, the number of people catching the virus has been rising again for weeks now, and hospitalizations have started creeping up again. Deaths have stopped falling and, chances are, will probably start increasing again, too, soon. Now, you know, most experts think we probably won't see another huge surge this spring or summer because so many people have gotten vaccinated and infected by now that it's created a kind of wall of immunity that will keep most people from getting so sick that they'll end up in the hospital or die. But big outbreaks could hit, you know, like in the South, this summer when people go back indoors when it gets hot. And most experts do think we will see a significant surge next winter. Here's Michael Osterholm at the University of Minnesota.

MICHAEL OSTERHOLM: Unfortunately, I wish I could think it were the end of the pandemic, but we still have more to go. And the bottom line message is, even though we're done with the virus, it's not done with us.

STEIN: Now, the hope is that we might be transitioning to a phase where the virus starts to become something more like the flu and something, you know, we could kind of learn to live with, but we're not quite there yet. And there's always the danger that yet another even more dangerous variant could erupt at any time.

MARTINEZ: Yikes. All right, before we go, let's take a step back for a second. How big of an impact will this pandemic have long-term?

STEIN: Well, we all know how it's upended virtually every aspect of our lives, and it's hard to predict, you know, the long-term impact. But it's probably going to be profound. I talked about this with Allan Brandt. He's another medical historian at Harvard.

ALLAN BRANDT: We will be living in the age of COVID-19 long after we have greater control over the pandemic. And I do think that, you know, historians and anthropologists, sociologists, economists will be evaluating the impact of this pandemic for the rest of the 21st century.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR health correspondent Rob Stein. Rob, as always, thanks.

STEIN: Sure thing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.