For weeks after Cindy Pollock began planting small flags in her yard, one for each of the more than 1,800 Idahoans killed by COVID-19, the toll was primarily a number. Until two women he had never met rang the bell crying, looking for a place to mourn the husband and father they had just lost.
Then Pollock knew that his tribute, however sincere, would never begin to convey the pain of a pandemic that has now claimed nearly 500,000 lives in the United States and counting.
“I just wanted to hug them,” he said. “Because that was all he could do.”
After a year that has darkened the doors of the United States, the pandemic is poised to surpass a milestone that once seemed unimaginable, a reminder of the virus’s reach in every corner of the country and communities of all sizes and characteristics.
“It’s very difficult for me to imagine an American who doesn’t know someone who has died or who has a family member who has died,” said Ali Mokdad, a professor of health metrics at the University of Washington in Seattle. “We really haven’t fully understood how bad it is, how devastating it is, for all of us.”
Experts warn that more than 100,000 deaths are likely in the coming months, despite a massive campaign to vaccinate people. Meanwhile, the nation’s trauma continues to accumulate in a way unmatched in recent American life, said Donna Schuurman of the Dougy Center for Bereaved Children and Families in Portland, Oregon.
In other times of epic loss, such as the terrorist attacks of September 11, Americans have come together to face the crisis and comfort the survivors. But this time, the nation is deeply divided. A staggering number of families are dealing with death, serious illness, and financial hardship. And many remain isolated, unable to even celebrate funerals.
“In a way, we are all grieving,” said Schuurman, who has counseled the families of those killed in terrorist attacks, natural disasters and school shootings.
In recent weeks, virus deaths have dropped from more than 4,000 reported on some days in January to an average of less than 1,900 per day.
Still, at nearly half a million, the number of victims recorded by Johns Hopkins University is already greater than the population of Miami or Kansas City, Missouri. It is roughly equal to the number of Americans killed in World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War combined. It is similar to September 11 every day for almost six months.
The death toll, representing 1 in 5 reported deaths worldwide, has far exceeded initial projections, which assumed that the federal and state governments would mount a comprehensive and sustained response and individual Americans would heed the warnings.
Instead, a push to reopen the economy last spring and the refusal of many to maintain social distancing and wear face masks fueled the spread.
The numbers alone don’t come close to capturing the anguish.
“Not once did I doubt that I wouldn’t make it. … I believed so much in him and in my faith, ”said Nancy Espinoza, whose husband, Antonio, was hospitalized with COVID-19 last month.
The couple from Riverside County, California, had been together since high school. They pursued parallel nursing careers and started a family. Then on January 25, Nancy was called to Antonio’s bedside just before his heart beat for the last time. He was 36 years old and left a 3-year-old son.
“Today we are. And tomorrow it could be anyone, ”said Nancy Espinoza.
As of late last fall, 54 percent of Americans reported knowing someone who had died or been hospitalized with COVID-19, according to a Pew Research Center survey. Grief was even more widespread among African Americans, Hispanics, and other minorities.
Deaths have nearly doubled since then, and the scourge spread far beyond the virus-stricken northeast and northwest metropolitan areas last spring and Sun Belt cities were hit hard last summer.
In some places, the seriousness of the threat was slow to assimilate.
When a beloved community college teacher in Petoskey, Michigan, died last spring, residents lamented, but many doubted the seriousness of the threat, Mayor John Murphy said. That changed over the summer after a local family threw a party in a barn. Of the 50 who attended, 33 were infected. Three died, he said.
“I think from a distance people felt ‘This is not going to affect me,'” Murphy said. “But over time, the attitude has totally changed from ‘I don’t. It is not our zone. I’m not old enough ‘, as far as it became the real deal. “
For Anthony Hernandez, whose Emmerson-Bartlett Memorial Chapel in Redlands, California, has been overwhelmed handling the burial of COVID-19 victims, the most difficult conversations have been those with no answers, as he sought to comfort mothers, parents and children who lost loved ones. some.
His chapel, which organizes 25 to 30 services in an ordinary month, handled 80 in January. He had to explain to some families that they would have to wait weeks for burial.
“At one point, we had every gurney, every dresser, every embalming table had someone on top of it,” he said.
In Boise, Idaho, Pollock started the memorial in his garden last fall to counter what he saw as a widespread denial of the threat. When deaths spiked in December, she was putting up 25 to 30 new flags at a time. But her frustration has been alleviated a bit by those who stop or stop to show respect or cry.
“I think that’s part of what I wanted, for people to talk,” he said, “Not just like, ‘Look how many flags are in the yard today compared to last month,’ but trying to help people who love dear lost talk to other people. “
Associated Press videojournalist Eugene Garcia contributed to this story.