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The Coronavirus Death Toll Reaches 100,000


One hundred thousand - that is how many people are now known to have been killed in the U.S. by a virus few had ever heard of just a few months ago. With less than 5% of the world's population, the U.S. accounts for nearly one-third of all known coronavirus fatalities. NPR's David Welna looks at this grim milestone and at where the American death toll may be headed.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: It took barely four months for the number of lives lost in the U.S. to the COVID-19 pandemic to reach the 100,000 mark.

CHRISTOPHER MURRAY: Back in March, I did not think this would be possible.

WELNA: As the head of the University of Washington's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, Christopher Murray was one of the first public health experts who tried predicting how the coronavirus would impact the U.S. He admits he missed the mark.

MURRAY: I really believed we as a nation, having taken the decision to put in place social distancing and accepted the economic hardship that that's creating, that we would've stuck to it to get transmission down to a very low level and therefore, we would not have gotten to a hundred thousand deaths.

WELNA: People have died in all 50 states and most U.S. territories, but the demographics of those deaths are skewed. Four out of five whose lives ended were 65 or older. Nearly twice as many men and boys were killed by COVID-19 as were women and girls. Kathleen Cagney directs the University of Chicago's Population Research Center. She says African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans all comprise a larger share of the dead than they do of the living.

KATHLEEN CAGNEY: And if you look at the locations where people are disproportionately dying, they are in places that are lower-income. They are in places that likely have multiple residents in a single-unit space. They are disproportionately in institutional settings like nursing homes. They are places where people rely on public transit and rely on services like big-box locations where, by entry alone, you're putting yourself at risk.

WELNA: There would likely not be a hundred thousand coronavirus deaths in the U.S. today if social distancing and stay-at-home measures had been adopted earlier. That's what a new Columbia University study finds. It estimates that had such measures gone into effect only a week sooner, nearly 36,000 deaths would have been averted. Jeffrey Shaman is one of that study's authors.

JEFFREY SHAMAN: The lesson isn't what this means for the next time we have a pandemic with a new virus. The lesson is really, what are we doing with this virus as we move forward? But it isn't going anywhere and that we still have to contend with it.

WELNA: Opening things up too quickly and not tamping down coronavirus flare-ups fast enough, Shaman warns, could mean more unnecessary deaths. Most of the dozen epidemiological models being tracked by federal officials are predicting the U.S. death toll rising above 140,000 by August, a number many Americans may find difficult to grasp.

ASHISH JHA: It's been stunning to me that we have had as much death as we've had with as little attention to all those deaths.

WELNA: That's Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Initiative (ph).

JHA: I think one of the reasons we've had so little attention to all of the deaths is because we've not had the kind of public mourning that comes with mass casualties like this - the funerals, the other events. But we're going to start seeing all of that now as the country begins to open up, and I think the weight of this calamity is going to become much more apparent to people in the upcoming days and weeks. So people are going to, I think, really come to grips with how awful the last couple of months have been.

WELNA: Should such a delayed reckoning come this day in late May when the death toll passed the 100,000 mark may or may not be remembered. Still, it won't likely be forgotten that these deaths came as quickly as they did and that so many killed by the virus were among the most vulnerable - all while the country tries getting back on its feet and, come November, decide who should occupy the White House next year.

David Welna, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.