U.S. surpasses 300,000 COVID-19 deaths as vaccine rollout begins

The U.S. death toll from the coronavirus pandemic surpassed 300,000 on Monday, just as the country began a monumental vaccination campaign against the virus.

Expert warns country could see more pandemic hardships even with vaccine campaign

A nurse puts on personal protective equipment as she prepares to treat a COVID-19 patient in the emergency room of a Missouri hospital. The death toll from COVID-19 in the U.S. surpassed 300,000 on Monday. (Jeff Roberson/The Associated Press)

The U.S. death toll from the coronavirus pandemic surpassed 300,000 on Monday, just as the country began a monumental vaccination campaign against the virus.

The number of dead rivals the population of St. Louis or Pittsburgh. It is equivalent to repeating a tragedy on the scale of Hurricane Katrina every day for five and a half months. It is more than five times the number of Americans killed in the Vietnam War. It is equal to a 9/11 attack every day for more than 100 days.

"The numbers are staggering — the most impactful respiratory pandemic that we have experienced in over 102 years, since the iconic 1918 Spanish flu," Dr. Anthony Fauci, the U.S. government's top infectious disease expert, said recently.

The milestone came on the same day health-care workers rolled up their sleeves for Pfizer-BioNTech's COVID-19 vaccine, marking the start of the biggest vaccination campaign in U.S. history. If a second vaccine is authorized soon, as expected, 20 million people could be immunized by the end of the month.

Meanwhile, a change in Washington is fast approaching after an election that was, in large part, a referendum on the Trump administration's handling of the virus. President-elect Joe Biden has made clear that his first priority will be a comprehensive and disciplined effort to defeat the outbreak.

The death toll was reported by Johns Hopkins University from data supplied by health authorities across the U.S. The number of lives lost is believed to be much higher, in part because of deaths that were not accurately recorded as coronavirus-related during the early stages of the crisis.

Globally, COVID-19 is blamed for more than 1.6 million deaths.

A woman writes a tribute to her cousin, who died of COVID-19, at a symbolic cemetery in Miami. (Lynne Sladky/The Associated Press)

Experts say it could take well into spring for the shots and other measures to bring cases and deaths under control in the U.S.

With cold weather driving people inside, where the virus spreads more easily, and many in the U.S. disdainful of masks and other precautions, some public health authorities project 100,000 more could die before the end of January.

"We are heading into probably the worst period possible because of all the things we had in the spring, which is fatigue, political resistance, maybe the loss of all the good will we had about people doing their part," said Jennifer Nuzzo, a public health researcher at Johns Hopkins.

Nuzzo contrasted the government's scattershot response with the massive mobilization undertaken after nearly 3,000 Americans were killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

"To think now we can just absorb in our country 3,000 deaths a day as though it were just business as usual, it just represents a moral failing," she said.

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