A memorial in Detroit, Michigan honored more than 1,500 victims of Covid-19 on September 2, 2020.

In Grim Milestone, America’s Covid-19 Death Toll Tops 200,000

Just eight months after the first confirmed case of the novel coronavirus reached the United States, the country’s death toll from Covid-19 surpassed 200,000 people this week. As of Friday morning, according to the Johns Hopkins University Covid-19 dashboard, an estimated 202,827 people have died from the virus in the U.S. — around one-fifth of the world total.

It can be difficult to know what to make of this milestone. For one thing, the estimate is probably too low: Excess death statistics, which capture the difference between the expected number of people dying in a given period of time and the actual observed mortality, suggest that coronavirus is associated with more deaths than show up in the official tallies. One prominent estimate based on excess death data suggests that the U.S. toll surpassed 200,000 people in early August.

As with other natural disasters, those deaths have been unevenly distributed. Close to 10 percent of confirmed U.S. Covid-19 deaths have occurred in New York City alone, although the burden of the virus has been shifting toward smaller urban areas and towns. And, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Black people have been twice as likely to die from Covid-19 as White people.

Roughly one in 25 nursing home residents in the U.S. has now died from Covid-19, and people aged 75 or older represent a majority of fatalities. But, according to CDC data from earlier this month, Covid-19 has killed close to 16,000 people in the U.S. who were younger than 55 years old.

While some projections early in the pandemic suggested that the U.S. death count from Covid-19 could number in the millions, many public health experts made more modest predictions, hopeful that simple public health measures would slow the virus’ spread. Some expressed surprise and sadness this week that so many people had died. “In February, I knew 200,000 deaths were theoretically possible, but I honestly didn’t believe we’d get to that point,” Kent State University epidemiologist Tara Smith told Vox, in a feature asking public health experts to respond to the sobering milestone. “I expected that this would be challenging,” the biostatistician Natalie Dean said in her response, “but I didn’t expect how desensitized we as a country would become to over 1,000 Americans dying a day.”

In the face of such numbers, many Americans have struggled for ways to memorialize the loss, and humanize the statistics. In Detroit last month, the city placed large photos of hundreds of Covid-19 victims in a park, so people could drive by to pay their respects. A popular Twitter account, @FacesofCovid, shares a stream of photos and news accounts of people who have died in the pandemic. And in Washington, D.C., this week, a volunteer group, dubbed the Covid Memorial Project, placed 20,000 small U.S. flags on the National Mall to mark the 200,000 deaths.

In a fundraising statement, the group criticized President Donald Trump’s administration for doing too little to memorialize the dead. And they called for more recognition of the tragedy. “The Covid Memorial Project,” they wrote, “seeks to simply say: These lives are more than a statistic — they were family, friends, neighbors.”

Also in the News:

• This week, pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson reported that it will enroll some 60,000 people for a phase III clinical trial of its Covid-19 vaccine, making it the fourth vaccine candidate to enter late-stage trials in the U.S. Unlike other leading vaccine contenders, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, if shown to be safe and effective, would require only one dose, rather than multiple injections. Other Covid-19 vaccine news this week raised complicated ethical questions, even as it underlined the urgency of finding vaccines in the face of an ongoing global pandemic. On Wednesday, the Financial Times reported that the U.K. government was planning to launch human challenge trials, in which healthy people would receive a vaccine and then be deliberately infected with Covid-19 in order to more quickly assess the inoculation’s efficacy. The studies could begin as early as January 2021 if they receive regulatory approval. Human challenge trials have been used to accelerate vaccine development in other diseases, such as malaria and cholera. But unlike Covid-19, those diseases can also be reliably treated with drugs, and the prospect of human challenge trials for a Covid-19 vaccine has inspired extensive ethical debate, with forceful arguments both for and against the practice. “These discussions are part of our work to research ways of treating, limiting, and hopefully preventing the virus,” the U.K.’s Department for Business, Enterprise, and Industrial Strategy said in a statement about the plan, “so we can end the pandemic sooner.” (Multiple Sources)

• The Environmental Protection Agency signaled this week that it will reject a recommendation by agency scientists to ban the pesticide chlorpyrifos, triggering worries that the agency is making good on a promise to curb consideration of certain scientific studies in its policymaking. The pesticide — banned for household use since 2000 but still widely used on soybeans, almonds, and other crops — has been linked to impaired brain development in children, prolonged nerve and muscle stimulation, and other serious health problems. In 2017, then-EPA administrator Scott Pruitt scuttled plans to ban the substance, prompting a wave of legal challenges and a scientific review. In a risk assessment released on Tuesday, however, the agency asserted that “the science addressing neurodevelopmental effects remains unresolved.” The agency excluded from its assessment several epidemiological studies linking chlorpyrifos to health problems, citing a lack of access to the studies’ raw data. The New York Times reports that the move could mark a first application of a controversial plan to dismiss or give less weight to studies that don’t publicly release their underlying data — even when the data can’t be released due to patient privacy reasons. The final decision on the chlorpyrifos ban is still pending. (The Hill)

• Findings published this month in the journal Conservation Letters suggest that suppression of environmental research in Australia is worsening, based on survey responses from 220 Australian environmental scientists, including a mix of academic, government, and industry researchers. Three-quarters of the scientists said they felt pressured to self-censor their work. Many of these environmental scientists also reported their research was often manipulated to downplay environmental risks and make any conclusions seem less dire. Government employees appeared to be among those whose speech was most curtailed: While roughly 40 percent of industry scientists indicated they were barred from talking about their work in a public forum, around 50 percent of the government scientists said they weren’t allowed to speak publicly. And 75 percent of the total scientists surveyed said that they had at least once chosen not to contribute their findings to a public discussion, despite having the opportunity to do so. “We need our publicly funded institutions to be more vocal in defending the importance of an independent voice based on research,” said Saul Cunningham, the director of the Fenner School of Environment and Society at the Australian National University in Canberra. (Nature)

• Multiple investigations have been launched after a whistleblower alleged last week that a doctor working at a U.S. immigrant detention facility had performed hysterectomies and other procedures on women without their consent. Dawn Wooten, a former nurse at the Irwin County Detention Center in Georgia, said she’d heard from detained women who had organs removed and didn’t know why, referring to the gynecologist who performed the procedures as the “uterus collector.” In a statement, Irwin County Hospital said the accused, identified as Dr. Mahendra Amin, had only performed two hysterectomies at the facility since 2017. Through his attorney, Amin denied the allegations against him, though he will no longer see patients at the facility. A lawyer representing some of the women said she brought complaints about Amin to the detention facility’s attention years ago, and that they went unheeded. Another lawyer, Sarah Owings, who has an immigration law practice in Atlanta, told NBC News that, while she doesn’t think there’s necessarily any systemic sterilization going on, “I think this is the kind of thing that is allowed to flourish in the course of poor oversight and terrible, inhumane conditions of confinement.” In FY2019, more than 510,000 people spent time detained in ICE facilities. (Multiple Sources)

• And finally: California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Wednesday issued an executive order to state lawmakers to phase out the sale of new gasoline-powered cars, so that by 2035 only zero-emissions vehicles would be sold in the state. The move would make California the first American state to fully cease selling gas-powered cars, joining 17 countries that have announced similar phase-out plans, according to a report from the International Energy Agency. Newsom’s order also mandated plans for phasing out gas-powered trucks “everywhere feasible” by 2045. If successful, the plan could take a major bite out of the environmental footprint of California, where transportation accounts for over 40 percent of emissions, according to a statewide inventory. California’s market muscle — some 2 million new vehicles were sold in the state in 2018 — may also help make zero-emissions cars more affordable. The order is the latest in a series of moves by California lawmakers to take action on the climate crisis, an agenda that has caused friction with the federal government and one that has taken on increasing urgency amid a record-breaking wildlife season. While environmental groups reacted favorably to Newsom’s announcement, some representatives criticized him for failing to use executive power to ban the controversial oil extraction process known as fracking. Newsom instead called on the state legislature to help him craft new regulations for oil and gas drilling. (The Los Angeles Times)

“Also in the News” items are compiled and written by Undark staff. Deborah Blum, Lucas Haugen, Jane Roberts, Frankie Schembri, and Ashley Smart contributed to this roundup.

Michael Schulson is a contributing editor for Undark. His work has also been published by Aeon, NPR, Pacific Standard, Scientific American, Slate, and Wired, among other publications.