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The U.S. has lost 200,000 people to COVID-19. How did this happen?

Over the past six months, we have tried to capture and convey the heartbreaking loss of American life due to the coronavirus pandemic. As the country passes a somber threshold, with 200,000 people killed by COVID-19, Amna Nawaz talks to Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, and Dr. Megan Ranney, an emergency physician at Brown University.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    So sobering. And, as we reach this devastating milestone, Amna Nawaz has more about the people behind the number — Amna.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That's right, Judy.

    Over the last six months, we have tried to capture the heartbreaking and the staggering loss of life by sharing the names, the faces, and the stories of just a few of the hundreds of Americans who died each week from COVID-19.

    And here they are, 115 mothers, fathers, teachers, nurses, artists and grandparents, from every corner of the country and every walk of life.

    One was Philip Kahn. He was 100 years old, but his family says as lively as ever. He kept his album of military photos close at hand.

  • Philip Kahn:

    I stood next to the Enola Gay, but I didn't know it had a bomb on it. I didn't know I was four feet from the atomic bomb.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    An Air Force co-pilot, Kahn fought at Iwo Jima, later taking aerial surveys of the devastation from U.S. atomic bombs. He settled in New York, worked construction on the World Trade Center, and became a father, grandfather, and great-grandfather.

    This is Lynika Strozier. Raised by her grandmother, she was diagnosed early with a severe learning disability, but studied nonstop, and became a researcher at the world-renowned Field Museum in Chicago. She was at home in the lab or out with friends and she was just 35 years old.

    According to her wife, spreading love and fighting for justice was a calling for reverend Vickey Gibbs. Her final sermon at her Houston church was an impassioned call to action on the pandemic and racial inequality.

  • Vickey Gibbs:

    Be the bridge to equality by demanding and voting in change.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Gibbs had a special bond with her grandson, whom she gifted the nickname Boo. Reverend Gibbs was 57 years old.

    Postal worker Jesus Collazos took time to greet every neighbor along his mail route in Arlington, Virginia. He spent over 20 years in the Postal Service after immigrating from Colombia. He and his wife raised two children in a home he first discovered along his route. At 67 years old, he loved to show off his grandchildren on social media, always with the caption life is good.

    Hatsy Yasukochi was the heart of her family-run San Francisco bakery.

  • Hatsy Yasukochi:

    I decorate cakes, I answer the phone, and I wait on customers.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    She lived by the Japanese phrase gaman , to persevere, enduring imprisonment with her family in U.S. internment camps in the 1940s, and beating breast cancer as an adult. The 80-year-old grandmother's bakery walls were adorned with family photos and silly Snapchats.

    Dolly Raper was one of few fluent Cherokee speakers left in the Cherokee Nation and, according to her family, made the best fry bread in Oklahoma. Known for her generosity, friends say Dolly was always there with a helping hand. She never complained, not even when battling breast cancer. The matriarch of her family, Dolly was a mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. She was 67 years old when she died.

    And those stories are just a fraction of the roughly 200,000 American lives lost to the pandemic so far, leading to questions about how we got here and what can be done now to save the U.S. from hitting another tragic milestone.

    For that, we turn to Dr. Georges Benjamin. He is executive director of the American Public Health Association, which is a professional group for physicians. And Dr. Megan Ranney, she's an emergency physician and professor at Brown University.

    Welcome to you both. And thank you for being with us.

    I'd like to ask each of you this question.

    Dr. Ranney, I will start with you, because it is such a milestone. It's a moment for reflection. And people are struggling with how to process it.

    So, I'm going to ask you first, Dr. Ranney, how are you reflecting on this moment, when we have hit 200,000 American deaths?

  • Megan Ranney:

    So, I first take a moment, as you just did, to honor all of the lives that have been lost, both those that I have personally touched in my emergency department, and the hundreds of thousands more across the country, to also honor their families and their communities and the effect and the holes that those lives lost are living — are creating within their communities.

    The second thing that I do is, I think about kind of how we got here, and what it is that we need to do going forwards to keep this horrific number from doubling or tripling or quadrupling in the months to come.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And before we get to how we got here and where we go from here, Dr. Benjamin, I would love to pose the same question to you, and also to point out another staggering statistic for context.

    When you look at the U.S. death toll, the U.S. makes up about four 4.2 percent of the world's population, but accounts so far for 20 percent of all COVID-19 deaths worldwide.

    Dr. Benjamin, how do you get your head around that number right now?

  • Georges Benjamin:

    You know, I also just first honor the people that tragically have died, and just remind myself that this was preventable.

    If you look at the rest of the world, they showed us a road map of what we should have done to try to minimize our numbers, and we have not done that.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    When you look at this pandemic, Dr. Benjamin, we noted there in the piece before, William Brangham noted in his piece, it is hitting different parts of America very differently.

    Depending on where you are and how you live and what you do, this pandemic is either scared every time the phone rings that someone else is sick or has died, or it seems like a very abstract headline unfolding in another part of the country.

    You mentioned other countries, but when you look at how it is unfolding here, what does that mean? The fact that it is unfolding so differently for different parts of America, does that mean that that number, 200,000, resonates differently across the country?

  • Georges Benjamin:

    It does.

    It means that each of us have had a different experience, and we're reacting to that different experience. And I think that's the reason we needed unified national leadership and a unified national plan that we could roll out into the various communities when they needed it. That has not yet happened.

    I think, as we look to the future, we know what we need to do. The pathway is clear. The science is clear. And prevention works. But we just have not done it yet.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Dr. Ranney, another statistic I want to point out to you, when you look at the leading causes of death in the United States and the projections experts are making for this year, it looks as if COVID-19 will be the third leading cause of death in the United States.

    That's after heart disease and cancer. You heard Dr. Benjamin just mention we haven't had a federally led national response. We haven't had testing at the level most experts say that we need it.

    Would having all of those things, any of those things, would that have changed where we are today, especially when you look at the fact that other countries took many of those steps and still had to deal with their own surges?

  • Megan Ranney:

    Yes, absolutely, we would be in a different place today had we had a comprehensive national testing strategy, had we had early activation of the Defense Production Act to both get us testing supplies and to get us personal protective equipment and, most importantly, had we had consistent, clear public health messaging for the American public about what to do to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

    With those three things put together, we could have had a death toll that was half or a third of what we're currently facing. We are alone among high-income countries in having the per capita death rate that we do. We are one of the top 10 countries worldwide in terms of our per capita death rate.

    That is not the place we should be in, given our Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, given our scientific prowess, given the National Institutes for Health. This is a failure of national leadership and a national strategy that has gotten us to this point.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, Dr. Ranney, we can't go back and change what has or hasn't been done.

    Very briefly, what needs to happen now? What can be done now so that the death toll doesn't get as high as you projected it could?

  • Megan Ranney:

    Absolutely. I love that question, because this is the moment where we can look forwards and talk about what we can do as a country and as individual communities.

    So, we can insist on adequate testing supplies. We can all mask. There's ample evidence that universal masking decreases infection rates by somewhere between 60 and 90 percent. That's an extraordinary number. So, long before there's a vaccine, if we all wear masks always when we're out in public, we can stop the spread of this virus.

    We can also insist on improved national data to inform that public health messaging. And I will say it again. Unfortunately, the federal government has been behind the curve in terms of their provision of data so far.

    So, academic institutions and nonprofits such as the one that I'm involved with, Get Us PPE, have stepped in to fill the gap to provide data on where there are PPE needs, who's been tested, what the positivity rates are, even the spread of COVID within schools. That's all provided privately, instead of by the federal government.

    So, we can support those efforts, and we can do it on a state or community level for now, while we also put pressure on a national level to try to move our national strategy forwards.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Dr. Benjamin, in just over a minute left, I want to put the same question to you.

    You heard Dr. Ranney we could see manyfold the death toll we have seen so far. Do you worry we could see that?

  • Georges Benjamin:

    Yes, I'm very worried about this.

    I'm afraid that we just had 200 bells rung, and we're on a trajectory to have to ring 400 bells towards the end of the year, early into next year.

    And I think, again, the point is, wearing a mask, washing your hands, keeping your distance, not getting around in crowds, it's clearly the way to go.

    And if I could add one more thing, because we're in flu season, get your flu shot.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    It's a good reminder for everyone out there.

    That is Dr. Georges Benjamin and Dr. Megan Ranney joining us today, as America marks a tragic milestone.

    Thank you very much to both of you.

  • Georges Benjamin:

    Thank you.

  • Megan Ranney:

    Thank you.

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