HARTFORD, Conn. – The U.S. surpassed a jarring milestone Wednesday in the coronavirus pandemic: 100,000 deaths.
That number is the best estimate and most assuredly an undercount. But it represents the stark reality that more Americans have died from the virus than from the Vietnam and Korean wars combined.
“It's a striking reminder of how dangerous this virus can be,” said Josh Michaud, associate director of global health policy with the Kaiser Family Foundation in Washington.
The once-unthinkable toll appears to be just the beginning of untold misery in the months ahead as Las Vegas casinos and Walt Disney World make plans to reopen, crowds of unmasked Americans swarm beaches and public health officials predict a resurgence by fall.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert, issued a stern warning after watching video of Memorial Day crowds gathered at a pool party in Missouri.
“We have a situation in which you see that type of crowding with no mask and people interacting. That's not prudent, and that's inviting a situation that could get out of control,” he said during an interview Wednesday on CNN. “Don't start leapfrogging some of the recommendations in the guidelines because that's really tempting fate and asking for trouble.”
Worldwide, the virus has infected more than 5.6 million people and killed over 350,000, with the U.S. having the most confirmed cases and deaths by far, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University. Europe has recorded about 170,000 deaths, while the U.S. reached more than 100,000 in less than four months.
The true death toll from the virus, which emerged in China late last year and was first reported in the U.S. in January, is widely believed to be significantly higher, with experts saying many victims died of COVID-19 without ever being tested for it.
Early on, President Donald Trump downplayed the severity of the coronavirus, likening it to the flu, and predicted the U.S. wouldn't reach 100,000 deaths.
“I think we'll be substantially under that number,” Trump said on April 10. Ten days later, he said, “We're going toward 50- or 60,000 people.” Ten days after that: “We're probably heading to 60,000, 70,000.”
Critics have said deaths spiked because Trump was slow to respond, but he has contended on Twitter that it could have been 20 times higher without his actions.
He has urged states to reopen their economies after months of stay-at-home restrictions.
It's not even clear when the coronavirus turned deadly in the United States. Initially, it was believed the first U.S. deaths from the virus were in late February in a Seattle suburb. But by mid-April, it was determined that two people with the coronavirus died in California as many as three weeks earlier.
Comparing countries is tricky, given varying levels of testing and that some coronavirus deaths can be missed. According to figures tracked by Johns Hopkins University, the death rate per 100,000 people is lower in the U.S. than in Italy, France and Spain but higher than in Germany, China, South Korea, Singapore, Japan, New Zealand and Australia.
“The experience of other countries shows that death at that scale was preventable,” said Michaud of the Kaiser Family Foundation. “To some extent, the United States suffers from having a slow start and inconsistent approach. We might have seen a different trajectory if different policies were put into place earlier and more forcefully.”
Countries with low death rates suppressed the virus “through lots of testing, contact tracing and policies to support isolation and quarantine of people at risk,” Michaud said.