Opinion: 1 million COVID deaths is an enormous number, something I never thought possible

·5 min read

“I thought it was just a cold,” my patient told me as she gasped for breaths between words, strapped to 50 liters of oxygen per minute (for comparison, most people on oxygen tanks are on 2 liters per minute). At 55, she was dying from COVID-19. My heart broke for her, as it has for so many over the past two years. She had been so careful until now.

Severely immunocompromised, her body could not mount the proper response to vaccines. Even boosted, she was at high risk, but she thought that with cases of the coronavirus dropping, she was finally safe to return to pre-pandemic life. Unfortunately, she may soon be the latest to join a staggering death toll that we have reached. This nation is close to a grim milestone.

As of Sunday morning, both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Johns Hopkins University show the country is nearing 1 million dead from COVID-19.

All across the nation, mask mandates are falling and people are rediscovering the smiles, the smells and even the air of indoor gatherings. And while Dr. Anthony Fauci declared the pandemic phase over, the virus has not disappeared. As a physician in the hospital, I am continuing to treat those struggling to breathe from COVID-19.

What I see at my hospital

There are certainly many less gravely ill patients hospitalized than before, but there are still those who come to the emergency department every day, like my 55-year-old immunocompromised patient, or the 30-year-old unvaccinated hairdresser who fell ill in January and still requires an oxygenation mask to breathe every night.

The Washington Monument is surrounded by white flags of the public art project "In America: Remember," commemorating the Americans who have died due to COVID-19. The concept by artist Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg was on the National Mall in the fall of 2021.
The Washington Monument is surrounded by white flags of the public art project "In America: Remember," commemorating the Americans who have died due to COVID-19. The concept by artist Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg was on the National Mall in the fall of 2021.

In just over two years, we're close to losing a million mothers, fathers, grandparents, sons, daughters and friends. And that number continues to climb. Even though we have three near-miraculous vaccines against COVID-19, anti-viral pills, an array of monoclonal antibodies and the ability to give a first and second booster, we still are experiencing several hundred COVID-19 related deaths per day in the United States.

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I never thought we would see a million deaths when this virus swept across the nation in March of 2020, and I certainly would not have thought that number could go higher still.

I am commemorating this landmark not to be a Debbie Downer or to fearmonger, but to ensure those who died did not do so in vain. We need to use this horrible experience to inform our future decisions not just for future pandemics, but also for the fight we are still facing.

While COVID-19 may be phasing down, we continue to see outbreaks and new variants taking hold. The BA.2 version of the omicron variant now accounts for the majority of the new COVID-19 cases in America, when just three months ago it was mostly seen in faraway places like South Africa. The viruses move fast across the globe, and will continue to do so as the world continues to open up.

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Are our only choices to live in fear and remain continually shut down and masked, or to be cavalier and return to life as normal, viral spread be damned? Neither choice is optimal and ignores the lessons of the last two years. We must acknowledge that a sizable (though still wanting) majority of Americans are vaccinated, that many others have already been infected, and that caseloads and deaths are down.

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At the same time, the elderly, the immunocompromised and the unvaccinated continue to die. Even some young, healthy and triple vaccinated are starting to get sick. I have had several friends and colleagues contract COVID-19 this month and rather than a simple cold, they were knocked off their feet for a week. And they are now at risk of developing long COVID, an unenviable and poorly understood hodgepodge of fatigue, mental clouding and breathing difficulties.

The middle ground now seems to bear the most common sense: be vaccinated (and boosted or double boosted if eligible), mask if in high transmission areas, including crowded indoor settings or public transportation – and test often. Not coincidentally, this is the advice of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, demonstrating a big lesson from the past two years: Listen and trust scientists and public health officials.

There has been far too much second-guessing and politicizing sound recommendations from people who spend their lives studying these disasters. The staggering seven-digit death toll should not be a red or blue issue; it is an American issue. We need to stay united and trust in the science.

My front porch is my summer sanctuary: I find happy memories, hope and peace out there.

The scientists, too, need to learn from this pandemic, particularly in messaging. The takeaway for the government, Dr. Fauci and public health leaders is that they need to be more clear, direct and transparent with their recommendations.

Even Dr. Fauci’s declaration that we are “out of the pandemic phase” was confusing and needed further clarification that we should continue to be cautious.

Dr. Thomas K. Lew
Dr. Thomas K. Lew

As we look forward to what hopefully is the transition out of the pandemic, now is a time to pause and reflect. One million is an enormous number. To my patients, that number represents the student who could not make it home for Christmas, the grandfather who could not teach his granddaughter to drive, and the young mother who would not tuck in her kids ever again. It is a grave milestone for this country to have reached. Let us not forget these deaths and take the lessons learned forward to prevent even more Americans dying.

Dr. Thomas K. Lew, a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors, is an assistant clinical professor of Medicine at the Stanford University School of Medicine and an attending physician of Hospital Medicine at Stanford Health Care – ValleyCare. All expressed opinions are his own. Follow him on Twitter: @ThomasLewMD

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 1 million COVID deaths - I'm in disbelief over that much loss