When COVID shut down normal life in March 2020, few people imagined they’d find themselves still in the throes of a pandemic in a couple of weeks, let alone after two years. But once again, the US has reached a grim milestone this month, with 900,000 COVID-related deaths as of Friday, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
Daily COVID deaths averaged over 2,400 this week, according to the CDC, with some days seeing around 3,000 deaths reported. On Feb. 3, 2021, the seven-day average was 3,022 deaths, before vaccines were widely available and before there were booster shots.
With every new season of pandemic uncertainty comes the promise of loss, despite all attempts to be prepared for future outcomes.
Alex Goldstein, 37, founded a Twitter account called FacesOfCOVID, which shares stories of people who have died of COVID-19. He started the initiative in March 2020 as a way to process “the human story behind the numbers,” he told BuzzFeed News on Friday.
Going into year three of its existence, the account now has over 150,000 followers and has received over 7,000 stories, some directly from family members and friends through a submission form.
“Nice words from complete strangers” are a solace because people cannot say goodbye to loved ones in traditional ways, Goldstein said, so they engage with one another and find consolation through storytelling.
Goldstein, who lives in Waltham, Massachusetts, said he never believed he would have to manage the account for over two years, but the work now feels like a “daily meditation” he does before or after his full-time job in public relations.
“The stories that hit me the hardest are people who don’t have a chance to say goodbye,” he said, adding that it’s especially difficult to see people survive difficulties in their lives only to die from “a virus that we fail to control.”
“Every single one of them is a gut punch,” he added. “This country normalizes mass deaths in this pandemic. … This country has failed to even begin to process what it means to lose 900,000 of our neighbors.”
Goldstein said he felt that stories like the ones he receives are not spoken of enough, especially as they grow in number so rapidly.
The death toll in the US from the Omicron variant, which struck this fall, is currently worse than the deadliest period of the less contagious and more severe Delta variant of last summer.
Top health officials have suggested that Omicron is “milder”; this means that while the total number of cases is ballooning, the proportion of people getting extremely sick may be smaller. Hospitals are still overwhelmed with the unvaccinated and people with underlying conditions, those who are at the greatest risk of severe illness. Immunologists have pointed out that even the “milder” Omicron variant is likely just as deadly as the original strain of the coronavirus that started the pandemic in early 2020.
High rates of vaccination with booster shoots, coupled with widespread post-Omicron immunity, could likely prevent another surge soon, according to Jeffrey Duchin, who heads the Communicable Disease Epidemiology & Immunization Section for Public Health - Seattle and King County. However, it’s not yet clear how long that protection will last or whether it will adequately protect against future variants, which are not guaranteed to be mild.
Amid rapidly changing guidance in response to the spread of the highly contagious Omicron variant, this phase of the pandemic may feel like a roller coaster, swerving between new restrictions and promises that the country will return back to life as it was pre-2020.
And these new numbers pose staggering questions of what the months to come will look like: Is this roller coaster just life in the US now? Should we just adapt to always having the virus around and watching the infection rates to determine when it’s safe to go out or stay home?
To help answer these questions, scientists in the US and UK are studying a patchwork of global strategies and infection rates to try to determine what could happen in the coming months and years. The Omicron variant spread rapidly in the US after the holiday travel season, even among vaccinated people, but observation of Omicron cases in South Africa — which was likely hit first with the variant — showed that sharp increases in case numbers were often followed by equally rapid declines. But it is not yet clear whether future variants will continue to grow less severe for people without weakened immunities, or what an endemic era of COVID might look like.
“We are still in the early days,” Duchin told BuzzFeed News on Friday. “Over time, we will move from a new, emerging, and unfamiliar, highly unpredictable pandemic, to an endemic state that is more predictable with respect to the virus's virulence and its occurrence.”
The US has far more COVID-related deaths than other countries with similar wealth and infrastructure, largely due to the struggle to vaccinate most adults. (As of Friday, about 64% of the US population and 71% of the UK population is fully vaccinated.)
This gap is likely due to the politicization of the pandemic as well as rampant misinformation about the vaccines. This Biden administration is straining to push for mass vaccination; the Supreme Court recently concluded that the administration overreached its authority by imposing a vaccine-or-test rule on US businesses with 100 employees or more.
Duchin, the health officer in Washington state, said it is now most important that governments work to ensure equitable vaccine access, widely available testing, and social support systems to manage “the potential double or triple whammy” of the flu or other respiratory diseases in addition to COVID. Improving indoor air quality standards and ensuring the availability of high-quality face masks like KN95 masks will help fight future surges as well, he said.
The next phase of the pandemic may look like steps toward “COVID resilience,” or long-term preparedness of managing the virus as a routine part of life, Duchin said.
Goldstein said that it was important to stop and grieve for the people who died. Even if the pandemic becomes predictable, he said, he fears for the mental health effects of a generation struck by trauma they never processed.
“We need to stop and actually take stock of what we've lost here,” he said. “I think there's consequences to not doing that."
Correction: As of Friday, 64% of the US population and 71% of the UK's population is fully vaccinated. A previous version of this post misstated that it was only adults.