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Doctors and grief experts on the milestone of 1 million COVID deaths

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

To put this number into perspective for us, we've asked NPR health correspondent Rob Stein to join us. Hi, Rob.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Hi, Adrian.

FLORIDO: One million people in just two years of the pandemic. That is an awful number of deaths.

STEIN: Yes. You know, yeah. The loss has been just staggering. Now, you know, just to be clear, officially, the country hasn't quite hit 1 million reported deaths. The CDC says more than 995,000 have died. And Johns Hopkins University, which NPR uses to track the pandemic, says it's nearly 999,000. But more people have died from COVID-19 in this country than died from AIDS in the U.S. since that pandemic began decades ago, more than died in the 1918 flu pandemic. One million deaths is like losing everyone in San Jose, California, the nation's 10th-largest city. Let's listen to the reaction from just a few people I talked to about this.

ANTHONY FAUCI: It is terrible, horrible to have that many people die of a transmissible disease in a two-year period. It is very sobering and very sad and tragic.

STEIN: That, of course, is White House science adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci. Here's Jennifer Nuzzo. She's a Brown University epidemiologist.

JENNIFER NUZZO: It's one of these things where the numbers are just so large, it's hard to even wrap your head around it. And it's even harder to think of it in terms of individual lives. Those are people, you know, loved ones that are now missing from this earth. It's really, really hard to comprehend.

STEIN: And here's Allan Brandt. He's a medical historian at Harvard.

ALLAN BRANDT: It's been a seismic event in the history of the world. It's been a catastrophic event in the history of the United States.

FLORIDO: Rob, all of this for a disease that didn't even exist three years ago.

STEIN: Right. Right. That's right. And now it's become the third leading cause of death in the U.S. after heart disease and cancer. So many died in the prime of their lives that life expectancy dropped the most since at least World War II to the lowest level in a quarter century. And 1 million is a gross underestimate of how many people have really died from COVID-19. And it doesn't include all the people who died for other reasons because of the pandemic like, you know, because they couldn't get the care they needed.

FLORIDO: And it's not just deaths, Rob. The pandemic has taken a toll in many other ways, hasn't it?

STEIN: Absolutely. Absolutely. Think about all the lives that have been ruined by the havoc it wrought to the economy. You know, restaurants, shops, theaters and other businesses going bust, waitresses, cashiers and other workers losing their jobs, all the COVID survivors struggling with long COVID, all the husbands, wives, children grieving lost loved ones. You know, Deborah Umberson studies grief at the University of Texas Austin and experienced it herself when she lost her father to COVID-19.

DEBRA UMBERSON: It's like this giant snowball that is going to take this cumulative toll on the nation's health for probably a couple of generations in addition to what it's already done in terms of COVID deaths.

STEIN: And yet the country is acting like the pandemic is essentially over, even though that's obviously far from the case.

FLORIDO: Why is that happening, Rob? Why do some people seem to be so accepting of this death and suffering?

STEIN: Well, you know, there are lots of reasons. You know, part of it is people are just exhausted, you know, utterly depleted from two very long years of hiding from the virus. But part of it is, who's died? Most were older people. Many were poorer people and people of color. So big parts of society haven't been touched as directly. And, you know, many of those deaths have been kind of invisible. Many died alone in nursing homes or behind curtains in intensive care units, which compounds the tragedy but makes it seem kind of remote.

And another reason is that despite this enormous loss of life, most people haven't lost someone really close to them. One estimate is that every person who died left nine close relatives behind. So that's still only maybe 9 million people out of a country of almost 330 million. I talked about this with Dr. Nicholas Christakis, who studies social networks at Yale.

NICHOLAS CHRISTAKIS: You probably heard of someone, a co-worker maybe or a friend of a friend or someone down the street or in your building or something like that who died. But the probability that you are intimately connected to someone who died is actually low. People sort of died off stage. And obviously, people who have seen death up close from COVID-19 have a very different perspective than those who have not.

STEIN: What most people have seen up close is how it's disrupted their lives, you know, separated grandparents from their grandchildren, prevented their kids from going to school, families from gathering, just enjoying life.

FLORIDO: Now, with vaccines and treatments, though, people feel like it's safer and life getting back to normal, right?

STEIN: Yeah. Yeah, that's right. And you know, this has to happen. But the danger is this virus isn't gone. You know, infections are rising yet again, sending more people to the hospital and dying. But everyone's acting like the pandemic is over, and Congress is balking at funding the fight. Here's William Hanage. He's an epidemiologist at Harvard I talked to about this.

WILLIAM HANAGE: It's shocking to me that so many people have accepted a million dead. This is not a trivial number. That's a million human beings. And the fact that we have taken this appalling toll and folks are so keen to move on from it and not examine how we got there is deeply depressing.

STEIN: And don't forget, hundreds of people are still dying every day, so tens of thousands more will probably die over the next year, easily more than a hundred thousand, even if another more dangerous variant doesn't emerge. So, you know, as we figure out how to live with the virus, we have to do it carefully to protect people who are still vulnerable and to be ready, you know, because we never know. At any moment, an even more threatening variant could evolve. So we have to stay vigilant. And we have to keep using all the tools we have at our disposal to save as many more lives as we can.

FLORIDO: NPR health correspondent Rob Stein. Thanks for your reporting.

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

Rob Stein is a correspondent and senior editor on NPR's science desk.

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