With the echo of church bells sounding in the distance, Americans paused this week to acknowledge a grim milestone: reaching and quickly surpassing 500,000 COVID-19 deaths.

Still, officials in the greater Washington area continue to voice optimism over the recent trend of declining numbers of local coronavirus death and illness.

“We continue to see significant improvement in all the COVID-19 metrics,” Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan said Wednesday.

Some of the statewide metrics include a positivity rate of 3.90 percent, the lowest level since Oct. 1; hospitalizations decreased below 1,000 at 978; and the number of nursing homes with COVID-19 cases dropped by 47 percent to the lowest level since mid-October.

“Sadly, we lost 500,000 Americans to COVID-19 including 7,580 Marylanders. We mourn each and every one of them and we continue to pray for their families,” he said.

In the District, the COVID death toll increased with three new deaths Feb. 23, according to D.C. Department of Health officials. The positivity rate of infection in the District stands at 5.2 percent — slightly higher than the desired goal of five percent as set by public health experts.

While most D.C. coronavirus metrics appear seem either positive or improving, officials said the daily case rate of community spread which stands at 15.3 percent and the 10.1 percent health system capacity of COVID-19 patients, both as of Feb. 21, remain troublesome. Zero to nine percent stands as the ideal for community spread while zero to five percent remains the goal for health system capacity.

Although Maryland averages 29,000 vaccines administered daily, more is need, state officials said.

Hogan joined other governors on a conference call Tuesday with White House officials “to press for more doses to be produced [and] distributed.”

During the call, he said Johnson & Johnson could receive approval from the Food and Drug Administration to develop a vaccine “as early as Friday” and begin distribution next week.

About 2 million doses could be shipped nationwide with Maryland to receive at least 2 percent, he said. The amount could increase to 20 million by next month, he said, with 400,000 doses coming to Maryland. To ensure that more people are vaccinated, the state opened a third mass site on Feb. 25 at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, home of the NFL football team, Baltimore Ravens. So far, more than 10,000 appointments have already been scheduled with a goal to administer 2,000 shots per day by next week.

A fourth mass vaccination site will open by March 11 in Charles County at the Southern Maryland Blue Crab Stadium. Two more are scheduled to open in Western Maryland and the Eastern Shore.

Unlike county health departments which can only schedule residents who live in a specific jurisdiction, residents from any part of the state can schedule appointments at the mass vaccination sites.

Bowser Shares Update on the District

On Feb. 22, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser spoke to the public and shared a situational update related to COVID-19.

Her comments included the following:

In the District, 995 residents have lost their lives due to COVID-19.

For the first time the daily case rate has dropped below 15 percent — this means the District has moved from “Substantial Community Spread” to “Moderate Community Spread.”

COVID-19 testing has declined — a downward trend which the mayor said troubles her.

The District has received over 100,000 vaccine doses and the weekly incremental increase in doses received has allowed more vaccines to be administered.

A recent-established faith-based initiative has added New Samaritan Baptist Church in Northeast as a second site for vaccinations.

Under the DCHA Initiative, 912 people have been vaccinated at 11 DCHA housing properties through partnership with Sibley Memorial Hospital and Johns Hopkins Medicine.

Reflections from the Biden Administration

“Today we mark a truly heartbreaking milestone,” the president said at a White House ceremony on Feb. 22 attended by his wife, first lady Dr. Jill Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and her husband, “That’s more Americans who have died in one year in this pandemic than in World War I, World War II and the Vietnam War combined. That’s more lives lost to this virus than any other nation on Earth.”

Biden ordered flags flying over federal facilities to be at half-staff for five days. The Washington National Cathedral rang its bells 500 times — once for every 1,000 people who died from the coronavirus.

On the evening of Feb. 23, a Johns Hopkins University tracker reported 501,663 U.S. virus-related deaths. No other country has lost more lives to the yearlong pandemic than the U.S.

Remembrance, Biden said, serves as an important part of the healing process, both for individuals and for the nation.

“That’s how you heal — you have to remember,” he said. “And it’s also important to do that as a nation. Those who have lost loved ones, here’s what I know: They’re never truly gone. They’ll always be part of your heart.”

“We have to fight this as one people. As the United States of America … the only way to spare more pain and more loss, the only way,” he said.

Despite the immense toll on the nation, former Food and Drug Administration chief Dr. Scott Gottlieb pointed to reasons for optimism in the months ahead.

“I think we’re going to continue to see infection rates decline into the spring and the summer. Right now, they’re falling quite dramatically,” he said while speaking to reporters on CBS News’ ‘Face the Nation’ on Sunday.

Still, he noted that he doubts the U.S. will ever reach “true” herd immunity. But with a significant percentage of Americans having been infected and a growing number of people now being vaccinated, he said the disease is transferring “at a much slower rate.”

Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious-disease expert, called the U.S. death toll “stunning” and said “intense” political divisiveness have contributed to the nation’s poor handling of the pandemic.

A Final Look at the Numbers

A recent analysis of the milestone reached in the U.S. by National Geographic puts the number of deaths — over 500,000 — in terms that many find unbelievable.

In 2020, the U.S. saw a more than 15 percent increase in deaths over the prior year, the highest year-on-year rise in deaths across the U.S. since 1918, which experienced both a global flu epidemic and the First World War.

The colossal death toll forces us to confront a distressing number that has affected some groups more than others. Most of the dead have been Americans 65 and over. People of color are also dying at disproportionate rates: Deaths among Blacks are 1.9 times higher than among non-Hispanic whites, Hispanics and Latinos 2.3 times higher, and Native Americans 2.4 times higher.

That said, here’s another way to envision what 500,000 really means.

There are 525,600 minutes in a year. That’s one COVID-19 death per minute, for almost an entire year.

A line of 500,000 caskets, laid end to end, would stretch for 645 miles. Those coffins would reach from New York City to Indianapolis.

It would take a wall almost nine times the length of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in the District to list the names of every American who has died from COVID-19. The 58,318 names of those who perished in the Vietnam War are etched in the monument’s black granite.

The number of recorded deaths would equal nearly all the fast-food cooks in the country. In 2019, a year before the pandemic led to massive unemployment, there were 527,220 cooks in the industry.

The number of Americans who attended the Woodstock music festival in New York in 1969 equals those citizens who have died from the coronavirus. Newspapers estimated that half a million traveled to the festival.

Losses to COVID-19 stand about 25 percent greater than the U.S. military death toll in World War II. The official count of service members lost in that war has been recorded at 405,399 — it would be like losing the entire population of Atlanta which stood at 488,800 in 2019.

It might look like losing all the school bus drivers in the U.S. In 2018, there were 504,150 drivers transporting students and special clients, including the elderly and people with disabilities.

It would be as if we lost all U.S. Postal Service workers. The postal service had 496,934 career employees in 2019.

If each death were marked with the blink of an eye, it would take 14 hours of rapid blinking to count off all the victims.

If measured in the skies, 500,000 is a hundred times more than all the stars visible to the naked eye.

These figures do not include tens of thousands of deaths that may have been related to the virus but were not recorded as COVID-19 deaths, such as deaths before testing became more widely available.

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WI Guest Author

This correspondent is a guest contributor to The Washington Informer.

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