As the U.S. faces the tragic milestone of 1 million deaths from COVID-19, President Biden says the "irreplaceable losses" of the pandemic must not be forgotten.
"As a Nation, we must not grow numb to such sorrow. To heal, we must remember. We must remain vigilant against this pandemic and do everything we can to save as many lives as possible," Biden said Thursday morning.
Flags will fly at half-staff through the weekend, the White House announced.
While most counts have yet to officially reach 1 million — a tally by Johns Hopkins University passed 999,000 on Thursday morning — the true sum of COVID-19 deaths nationwide already far exceeds that mark.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that the number of "excess deaths" during the pandemic had already surged past 1 million during the winter Omicron wave in January.
But even by a more conservative count, the virus has ranked behind only heart disease and cancer as one of America's leading causes of death over the past two years.
That is orders of magnitude larger than the toll typically attributed to other infectious diseases. The flu season of 2017-18, one of the deadliest in recent decades, claimed an estimated 52,000 lives.
In the wake of the winter surge, the daily toll of COVID-19 deaths has slowed in recent months. The 7-day moving average is now around 300 deaths reported per day — down from over 3,000 per day in February.
But cases and hospitalizations are once again accelerating, many linked to the fast-spreading BA.2.12.1 subvariant of Omicron that now makes up more than a third of new infections.
On May 4, for the first time in months, the CDC warned it predicted the pace of new COVID-19 deaths would "likely increase" nationwide over the coming weeks.
Millions more left grieving
Left behind are millions more Americans grieving those lost to COVID-19 — including nearly 200,000 children who lost a parent or caregiver.
Many families have lost multiple loved ones to the disease. A father and two daughters from a single San Antonio family are among the dead, CBS affiliate KENS-TV reported last year. Jose Bustos, Delilah Bustos Arreola and Veronica Bustos Gonzalez died within eight days of each other, at one point sharing the same intensive care unit at the hospital.
"The day my aunt was intubated on August 17… she was intubated four hours prior to my grandfather's passing, so we were unable to inform her of my mom's critical state," Desiree Moczygemba told the station.
When Jesus Enriquez died in January, CBS Denver reported that the 29-year-old left behind a wife and five children.
"I got to hold his hand and be there with him in his last moments," his widow, Bianca, told the station. "It was heartbreaking. I felt helpless. It was very, very hard for me."
Others were unable to be with their loved ones in their final days, as overwhelmed hospitals blocked visitors during some of the pandemic's worst surges.
Nurse Jasmine Christakos told CBS News about a night, early in 2020, when staff members at her hospital in the Bronx gathered around the bed of a patient whose family could not come in. "We said a prayer, we said goodbye, and we told the family, no, they didn't die alone. They died with us," she said.
While the virus has taken the highest toll among seniors — three out of four deaths were in people 65 and older — Americans of all ages, including children, have died from the disease.
North Carolina first-grader Ethan Govan is among the more than 350 children, between the ages of 5 and 11 years old, lost to COVID-19.
"He didn't let anything stop him or slow him down. He was just all around a very loving and sweet boy," his mother, Sharon Huff, told CBS affiliate WBTV-TV last year.
An unequal toll
COVID deaths have hammered some communities and industries much harder than others.
Essential workers — hailed as heroes in the early days of the pandemic — faced higher risks than Americans working from computer screens at home.
"It would have been nice to see them care more for their employees," Maria Andrade, the daughter of Jose Andrade-Garcia, an Iowa meatpacking plant worker, told CBS affiliate KCCI-TV. Adrade-Garcia died from COVID-19 a week before his scheduled retirement in 2020. A disproportionate number of essential workers — and of COVID victims overall — are people of color.
Age-adjusted data show Black, Hispanic and Native Americans are about twice as likely to die from COVID-19 as their White counterparts, underscoring long-standing disadvantages in housing, the workplace, access to health care and underlying conditions.
In the Navajo Nation, which saw one of the country's worst rates of infections during the pandemic, Philamena Belone is among the hundreds of COVID-19 deaths being mourned.
Belone, a third-grade teacher in New Mexico, continued teaching students virtually even during her battle with the virus, CBS affiliate KRQE-TV reported in 2020.
"Our kids on the reservation deserve the best, and my sister was the absolute best teacher they could ask for," her brother, Phillip Belone, told the station.
The impact of COVID-19 vaccines
Federal health officials say vaccinations have significantly reduced the number of deaths — and could have saved even more lives if more Americans got the shots. In recent months, the growing availability of effective COVID-19 treatments has also helped lessen the toll.
CDC survey data suggests rates of vaccination are now similarly high among adults from all races, though uptake of booster shots lags among Hispanic and Black adults.
"This thing is serious. Folks got to take this serious, people are literally dying," Mel Reeves, a prominent Black community activist in the Twin Cities, told CBS Minnesota from his hospital bed in December. He acknowledged he'd held off on getting vaccinated due to concerns about other medical issues, but urged others not to delay.
"If you can get the vaccination, get a vaccination, wear your mask, some things can be prevented. We have to overcome our fears so we can live."
Reeves died in January from COVID complications at the age of 64.
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