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U.S. death toll from COVID-19 reaches 500,000

The U.S. on Monday marked a new, watershed moment in the COVID-19 pandemic with 500,000 confirmed deaths. It comes even as daily increases in infections and deaths have slowed sharply in recent weeks. William Brangham reports, and Judy Woodruff speaks with Dr. Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at the Georgetown University Center for Global Health Science and Security, to learn more.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The nation tonight marks a new watershed moment in the COVID-19 pandemic, 500,000 confirmed deaths. It comes even as daily increases in infections and deaths have slowed sharply in recent weeks.

    William Brangham reports.

  • William Brangham:

    Half-a-million people, gone. It's been almost a year since the first known death from COVID-19 was recorded, and the country is reckoning with yet another horrifying milestone.

  • Dr. Rochelle Walensky:

    I think that, when history writes this, we will understand that the mortality related to this pandemic is far greater than the numbers that we have been counting.

  • William Brangham:

    It's a staggering toll that seemed unthinkable even a year ago, even to many of the country's leading health experts.

    Projections last March from Dr. Deborah Birx, then the coordinator of the Trump administration's Coronavirus Task Force, barely touched today's reality.

  • Dr. Deborah Birx:

    A hundred thousand to 200,000, and we think that that is the range. We really believe and hope every day that we can do a lot better than that.

  • William Brangham:

    Dr. Anthony Fauci, the president's top medical adviser on the pandemic, said today it didn't have to be this bad.

  • Dr. Anthony Fauci:

    We have done worse than most other country. And we're a highly developed, rich country. But it's so tough to go back and try to do a metaphorically autopsy on how things went. It was just bad. It is bad now.

  • William Brangham:

    It took only three months for the U.S. to reach 100,000 deaths. September and then December marked the next benchmarks, and in just five weeks, another 100,000 by January 19. Just a month later, and today's total is roughly the population of Kansas City, Missouri, or, Atlanta, Georgia all gone.

    The Washington Post calculated that, if all those people boarded a caravan of buses, lined up, they'd stretch almost 95 miles' long. That's a line of buses, bumper to bumper, between Philadelphia and New York City or San Jose to Santa Rosa in California.

    As the pandemic has progressed, people have struggled to visualize the catastrophic losses from the virus. And memorials, from murals in hard-hit Latino communities, to a candle-lighting ceremony at the National Mall, have marked moments of mourning across the nation.

    Another ceremony and a moment of silence commemorated the tragedy at the White House tonight. Flags on federal property will fly at half-staff for the next five days.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm William Brangham.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    As the country marks another tragic milestone, vaccinations are increasing. That leads many to believe we're beginning to see more light at the end of the tunnel.

    But questions remain over how long it will take before life returns to a safer and routine normal and if new COVID-19 variants could throw off timelines even more.

    We explore these questions with Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at the Georgetown Center for Global Health Science and Security. She joins me now from Seattle.

    Dr. Rasmussen, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    This is a sobering moment, but, as we say, vaccinations are increasing. You have written recently that it's — you might think of this is climbing out ever a deep well. Does that still apply?

  • Dr. Angela Rasmussen:

    I think that it does.

    If you look around, if you are in the process of climbing out of this well, and you look around right now, it seems very grim. You will see only darkness. But if you look up, you will see a circle of light as you get closer and closer to the top.

    As you climb, that circle will get bigger and bigger. And that's the circle that we are climbing towards through vaccination and through the exposure risk reduction methods that we all should be continuing to apply.

    The more of those that we can apply, the more people that we can get vaccinated, the quicker we are going to be able to step out of that well and into the light.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Can we say that the worst is behind us in terms of hospitalizations and deaths?

  • Angela Rasmussen:

    I really hope so, Judy.

    I have been reflecting on this grim milestone that we have just passed. And what is the most heartbreaking to me is that the majority of these deaths were preventable. Now that we have really, really effective vaccines that have really exceeded our expectations, we also have the ability to continue to take these precautionary measures to further reduce transmission.

    I like to think that we will be able to prevent more needless deaths from this terrible virus.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And how worried should people be about these new variants, especially the ones that we hear the vaccines may not be as effective against?

  • Angela Rasmussen:

    So, people should be concerned about the variants, but it's really important to tell people not to panic about the variants, because these variants, while they may be more transmissible, while they may be less protective — or the vaccines may be less protective against them, we still know that they are transmitted the exact same way as every other variant that has been circulating since the beginning of the pandemic.

    Because they are not incredibly prevalent in the U.S. yet, we have the ability now to really double down on those precautionary measures, so masking, physical distancing, avoiding gathering outside your household, washing your hands, increasing ventilation, if you can.

    By taking all of these measures as often as we can, as frequently as we can, in as many situations as we can, we can reduce transmission of those variants, as well as the variants that are already circulating in our communities.

    Overall, that means we're going to be able to vaccinate more people and stop the spread of those variants in their tracks. So, it is really important that we all really double down and remain extra vigilant, and so we can get vaccines distributed to more people.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You are touching on exactly what I wanted to ask you, because, of course, many people who haven't had the vaccine worry, concerned about getting the vaccine.

    But then, once people have the vaccinations, then the question is, how much longer, how many — how long do I have to keep taking these same precautions we have been taking?

  • Angela Rasmussen:

    That's everybody's question, Judy. And that's my question as well, because nobody, I can assure you, is more tired of this pandemic than virologists, epidemiologists and public health professionals.

    I would say to everybody that the sooner you get vaccinated, the sooner your loved ones get vaccinated, and the more you can apply these exposure reduction methods to reduce transmission in the community, the faster we're going to be able to relax these restrictions.

    I think that, if we are all diligent about this, and if we all get our vaccines when they are made available to us, we should be able to actually potentially even have a great relaxed summer. That's my hope.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And what exactly does that mean?

  • Angela Rasmussen:

    That means that we might be able to resume indoor dining. That means that we might be able to get together with our family and friends outside of our households.

    That means we might be able to have people over for the Fourth of July. We will be able to get back to some of the — quote, unquote — "normal daily activities" that many of us took for granted before this pandemic started.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Dr. Angela Rasmussen, we all certainly fervently hope that's right, especially on this day when we are reflecting and remembering the many, many lives that we have lost.

    Thank you so much for talking with us.

  • Angela Rasmussen:

    Thank you, Judy.

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