For weeks after Cindy Pollock started planting tiny flags on her yard – one for each of the 1,800+ Idahoans killed by COVID-19 – the toll was mostly a number. Until two women she had never met before rang the doorbell in tears, looking for a place to mourn the husband and father they had just lost.
Then Pollock knew that their tribute, cordial as it might be, would never convey the grief of a pandemic that has now claimed nearly 500,000 lives in the United States.
“I just wanted to hug her,” she said. “Because that was all I could do.”
After a year of darkening the doors in the US, the pandemic is on the verge of exceeding a milestone that once seemed unimaginable, reminding of the virus’s reach to every corner of the country and in communities of all sizes and compositions.
“I find it very difficult to imagine an American who doesn’t know anyone who has died or a family member who has died,” said Ali Mokdad, professor of health metrics at the University of Washington in Seattle. “We didn’t really understand how bad it is, how devastating it is for all of us.”
Experts warn that despite a massive campaign to vaccinate people, more than 100,000 deaths are likely in the next few months. Meanwhile, the nation’s trauma is growing in ways unparalleled in recent American life, said Donna Schuurman of the Dougy Center for Grieving Children and Families in Portland, Oregon.
In other moments of epic loss, like the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Americans have come together to face crisis and console survivors. But this time the nation is deeply divided. A staggering number of families are faced with death, serious illness and financial hardship. And many have to survive in isolation and cannot even hold funerals.
“In a way, we all mourn,” said Schuurman, who advised the families of those killed in terrorist attacks, natural disasters and school shootings.
In the past few weeks, virus deaths have fallen from more than 4,000 on some days in January to an average of less than 1,900 per day.
Still, the toll recorded by Johns Hopkins University, at nearly half a million, is already higher than the population of Miami or Kansas City, Missouri. This roughly corresponds to the number of Americans killed in the Second World War, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War combined. It’s like 9/11 every day for almost six months.
The toll, which accounts for 1 in 5 deaths reported worldwide, has far exceeded early predictions that federal and state governments would take a comprehensive and sustained response and individual Americans would heed warnings.
Instead, a push to reopen the economy last spring and the refusal of many to maintain social distance and wear face masks fueled the spread.
The numbers alone don’t come close to heartbreak.
“I never doubted that he wouldn’t make it. … I believed in him and my faith so much, “said Nancy Espinoza, whose husband Antonio was hospitalized with COVID-19 last month.
The Riverside County, California couple had been together since high school. They pursued parallel careers and started a family. Then, on January 25th, Nancy was called to Antonio’s bed just before his heart beat the last time. He was 36 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 said they knew someone who had died of COVID-19 or was hospitalized with it. This was the result of a survey by the Pew Research Center. The grief was even more widespread among Black Americans, Hispanics, and other minorities.
The number of deaths has almost doubled since then. The scourge spread far beyond the metropolises in the northeast and northwest last spring, and the cities in the sun belt were badly affected last summer.
In some places the severity of the threat was slow to take hold.
When a beloved professor at a community college in Petoskey, Michigan died last spring, residents mourned but many continued to doubt the severity of the threat, Mayor John Murphy said. That all changed in the summer after a local family threw a barn party. Of the 50 participants, 33 became infected. Three died, he said.
“I think at a distance people felt like that wasn’t my point,” Murphy said. “But over time, the attitude towards ‘Not me’ has totally changed. Not our area. I’m not old enough to be where it really got. “
For Anthony Hernandez, whose Emmerson-Bartlett Memorial Chapel in Redlands, California, was overwhelmed with the burial of COVID-19 victims, the most difficult conversations were those with no answers as he sought to comfort mothers, fathers and children who had lost their love Ones.
His chapel, which holds 25 to 30 services in a normal month, held 80 people in January. He had to explain to some families that they would have to wait weeks for a funeral.
“At some point we had every stretcher, every dressing table, every embalming table that someone was standing on,” he said.
In Boise, Idaho, Pollock began the memorial in her back yard last fall to counter what she saw as a widespread denial of the threat. When deaths soared in December, she planted 25 to 30 new flags at a time. But their frustration has been somewhat alleviated by those who slow down or stop showing respect or mourning.
“I think that’s part of what I wanted to get people to talk about,” she said. “Not only:” Look at how many flags are in the yard today compared to last month, “but try to help people who have done so. Lost loved ones talk to other people.”
Associated Press video journalist Eugene Garcia contributed to this story.
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