The U.S. death toll from the coronavirus topped 200,000 on Tuesday, by far the highest in the world, hitting the once-unimaginable threshold six weeks before an election that is certain to be a referendum in part on President Donald Trump's handling of the crisis.
“It is completely unfathomable that we've reached this point,” said Jennifer Nuzzo, a Johns Hopkins University public health researcher, eight months after the scourge first reached the world's richest nation, with its state-of-the-art laboratories, top-flight scientists and stockpiles of medical supplies.
The number of dead is equivalent to a 9/11 attack every day for 67 days. It is roughly equal to the population of Salt Lake City or Huntsville, Alabama.
And it is still climbing. Deaths are running at close to 770 a day on average, and a widely cited model from the University of Washington predicts the U.S. toll will double to 400,000 by the end of the year as schools and colleges reopen and cold weather sets in. A vaccine is unlikely to become widely available until next year.
The bleak milestone was reported by Johns Hopkins, based on figures supplied by state health authorities. But the real toll is thought to be much higher, in part because many COVID-19 deaths were probably ascribed to other causes, especially early on, before widespread testing.
In an interview Tuesday with a Detroit TV station, Trump boasted of doing an “amazing” and “incredible” job against the virus. And in a prerecorded speech to the U.N. General Assembly, he demanded Beijing be held accountable for having “unleashed this plague onto the world.” China's ambassador rejected the accusations as baseless.
For five months, America has led the world by far in sheer numbers of confirmed infections – nearly 6.9 million as of Tuesday – and deaths. The U.S. has less than 5% of the globe's population but more than 20% of the reported deaths.
Brazil is No. 2 with about 137,000 deaths, followed by India with approximately 89,000 and Mexico with around 74,000. Only five countries – Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Spain and Brazil – rank higher in COVID-19 deaths per capita.
“All the world's leaders took the same test, and some have succeeded and some have failed,” said Dr. Cedric Dark, an emergency physician at Baylor College of Medicine in hard-hit Houston. “In the case of our country, we failed miserably.”
Black and Hispanic people and American Indians have accounted for a disproportionate share of the deaths, underscoring the economic and health care disparities in the U.S.
Worldwide, the virus has infected more than 31 million people with nearly 967,000 lives lost, by Johns Hopkins' count, though the real numbers are believed to be higher because of gaps in testing and reporting.
On Feb. 26, Trump held up pages from the Global Health Security Index, a measure of readiness for health crises, and declared, “The United States is rated No. 1 most prepared.”
It was true. The U.S. outranked the 194 other countries in the index. Besides its labs, experts and strategic stockpiles, the U.S. could boast of its disease trackers and plans for rapidly communicating lifesaving information during a crisis. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was respected around the world for sending help to fight infectious diseases.
But monitoring at airports was loose. Travel bans came too late. Only later did health officials realize the virus could spread before symptoms show up, rendering screening imperfect. The virus also swept into nursing homes and exploited poor infection controls, claiming more than 78,000 lives.
At the same time, gaps in leadership led to shortages of testing supplies. Internal warnings to ramp up production of masks were ignored, leaving states to compete for protective gear.
Trump downplayed the threat early on, advanced unfounded notions about the behavior of the virus, promoted unproven or dangerous treatments, complained that too much testing was making the U.S. look bad, and disdained masks, turning face coverings into a political issue.
On April 10, the president predicted the U.S. wouldn't see 100,000 deaths. That milestone was reached May 27.