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As the U.S. COVID-19 death toll borders 200K, what have we learned?

The COVID-19 death toll in the U.S. is nearing the 200,000 mark, according to Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Research Center. Even though the death rate is lower than it was in the spring, 850 people on average are dying every day of the disease in the country, according to the New York Times. ProPublica reporter Caroline Chen joins to discuss.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    ProPublica reporter Caroline Chen joined us for more on this grim milestone in the pandemic.

  • Caroline Chen:

    I think it is such a tragedy that we are now talking about 200,000 deaths.

    Because when we hit the milestone of 100,000 deaths, I wrote a piece then where I said, what have we learned at this point? How can we do better? And I think what is really sad is I think that we're seeing that in many ways we haven't taken the opportunity to have learned from the many people who died in the first place and that many of the people who were so vulnerable when COVID first hit us and we were not prepared, are still really vulnerable.

    So I think people have heard that Black and Hispanic people are particularly vulnerable but, you know, nationally, Black people are dying at 2.4 times the rate of white people. That's 21% percent of the COVID-19 are Black people. This is according to the COVID Tracking Project.

    At the time when we were at 100,000 deaths I looked, and this is according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, about 35,000 deaths were in the long-term care facilities this is both residents and staff. And so at that point, I had been calling on and many people, of course, besides me, we knew from from the very start of the pandemic in Kirkland, in Washington, that nursing homes were vulnerable. And we should have at that point said nursing homes are the biggest priority.

    So you know, in preparation for yor call, I thought, well, has the proportion of deaths in nursing homes changed between the first 100,000 and the second 100,000? And unfortunately, it's the same raw number between the 100,000 and 700,000. So even though cases in long-term care facilities are only eight percent of the total deaths in long-term care facilities are 41 percent of the total.

    You would think that this would be one of the top priorities to keep this population safe. And we've known since the very beginning that they are particularly vulnerable. So I think there is this sadness and this tragedy. It's not just a number, but in knowing who has suffered here, that I feel particularly sad that we have to be talking today, Hari.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Yeah, briefly, we're heading into the fall. People are concerned about the flu. But if we wear masks and take some of the precautions to keep COVID-19 out of our lives, there's a good chance that flu will also stay out.

  • Caroline Chen:

    Absolutely. And I think we we have seen this both actually when the pandemic first hit, scientists did see that in places where, you know, particularly as lockdowns came in that COVID mitigation strategies actually helped to cut short the flu season. So we don't know what this year's flu season is going to look like, how bad it's going to be.

    But COVID mitigation strategies can also, of course, help with the flu. The other thing that I have to mention is that unlike with COVID what we don't have a vaccine yet, we had a flu shot. So it is definitely a good time to be getting your flu shot now because it's already out and available. So that's something we can do to help make sure that the flu season isn't a bad flu season.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    And finally, speaking of vaccines, even the best case scenario, even if there is one this year, it is not going to be available for wide scale distribution until sometime next year.

  • Caroline Chen:

    Yes, that's definitely true.

    So we're all hoping that there will be a vaccine that does well in the Phase 3 trials, we don't know yet. I think one thing that has been maybe difficult for people to get in their head is that we have to have this layered approach to combating this pandemic. So we need testing and handwashing. We need distancing and contact tracing. And we're going to need actually masks and vaccines because the vaccine is not probably going to be 100 percent effective.

    So if we have one that can help reduce severe disease so if you get infected, you don't end up in the hospital. That's great. But it might not prevent you from getting infected in the first place. So we might still be in masks. So we're going to need to be able to do all of these things at once.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Caroline Chen of ProPublica. Thanks so much.

  • Caroline Chen:

    Thanks for having me, Hari.

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