The USA has 3 million documented cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, a virulent bug that crawled into the national consciousness early in the year and is likely to consume the rest of it.
The grim milestone reached Wednesday represents roughly a quarter of the world’s cases and the same percentage of its deaths.
Though many Americans may be numb to the growing coronavirus toll, avoiding the reality will probably make matters worse.
Consider these statistics: It took the USA a little more than three months to hit 1 million cases on April 28. It took about half that time, 44 days, to get to 2 million on June 11 and only 26 days to reach 3 million on July 8. By that gauge, if no new measures are taken, 4 million cases could be tallied as soon as July 22.
The USA leads an unenviable group. Its 3 million cases for a nation of 330 million beats out Brazil’s 1.7 million cases (210 million population), India’s 742,000 cases (1.4 billion) and Russia’s 699,000 cases (145 million), according to statistics compiled by Johns Hopkins University.
The U.S. figure dwarfs the 85,000 cases in China, where the virus is thought to have originated. Even allowing for potential underreporting by Chinese authorities, China’s 1.4 billion people make its per capita infection rate one in 16,000. Here, one in every 110 Americans has tested positive for the virus.
After reaching the 3 million mark in record time, a few elected officials seem ready to slow the pace of business reopenings. Others, such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, remain steadfast in their desire to prioritize the economy in a politically charged climate that has turned masks into a divisive symbol.
One reason could be that the number of those killed by the virus – 131,000 – hasn’t spiked, confounding scientists and encouraging those opposed to renewed shutdowns, including President Donald Trump, who insisted schools fully reopen in the fall despite the growing number of cases.
COVID-19 deaths long ago rocketed past annual suicides (47,000), common flu (55,000), diabetes (83,000) and Alzheimer’s disease (121,000) and is fast coming up on strokes (146,000). Those are the U.S. figures for an average year. The virus has done its damage in less than half that time.
“Like a runner coming from behind in a macabre race, it has surpassed the death toll of many diseases so many Americans consider important,” says Steven Woolf, director emeritus of the Center on Society and Health at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. “People may get numb to the numbers, until it strikes someone near them.”
Another problem, Woolf says, is the delayed and sometimes nonexistent impact of the virus.
“Human beings are used to learning from their behaviors with the immediate response. You touch a hot stove, and you get the results right away,” he says. “With this, the people going out and partying and going to the beach and so forth all occurs weeks before the hospitalizations start increasing, so there’s less opportunity for society to learn their lesson from some of these behaviors.”Get the Coronavirus Watch newsletter in your inbox.
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Death may be the only motivating factor capable of changing U.S. hygiene habits and reopening plans, says Carolyn Marvin, Frances Yates emeritus professor of communication at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
“If people are truly inoculated to the notion that this virus is dangerous, it will take dead people in their own personal experience to change their minds,” Marvin says.
There are various examples of just such conversions: A Florida ride-share driver said he thought the virus was a distraction created by the government, until he contracted it.
Marvin says such isolated revelations won’t pierce the “echo chamber that is conservative radio and TV, which, if you listen to it often as I do, argues that no one is sick, the numbers are made up and the testing is corrupt.”
Trump supporter Rush Limbaugh said on his radio talk show last month that “you can’t believe the virus numbers” and that they are being trumpeted only to harm the president’s chances for reelection in November.
US coronavirus response: ‘It will go away’
Some health experts are unsparing in their views of how the United States mishandled its response to the coronavirus. Although Europe – especially Italy – was hit hard by the virus, numbers in many countries have steadily declined thanks to stiff quarantine rules. New Zealand eradicated the virus from its island nation.
The U.S. response, despite warnings from the spike in Wuhan, China, in January, was “almost like a delusional level of unpreparedness, that we were somehow superior, and we’re dramatically paying the price for that,” says Jonathan Metzl, director of the Center for Medicine, Health and Society at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee.
On Jan. 22, Trump said things in the USA were “going to be just fine.” On March 10, he told a meeting of Republican governors, “Just stay calm, it will go away.” A month later, most states started putting their citizens in self-quarantine.
Despite the nation’s surging virus cases, the Trump administration continues to pull away from the world on the topic of once and future pandemics.
Tuesday, Trump announced the United States would pull out of funding the World Health Organization, stripping away a large source of the group’s funding.
“Our government has doubled down on the mistrust of science, the mistrust of public health that got us in trouble in the first place,” Metzl says.
Few states have been immune to the mounting coronavirus case toll. Some have been harder hit than others, including Florida, Texas, Georgia and Arizona – where state leaders pressed for early reopenings.
The spike in virus cases is probably the result of a variety of factors. These include the arrival of summer’s heat and a desire to resume normal activities and a general misconception by younger Americans that they were not at risk of contracting COVID-19.
A growing number of people in their 20s and 30s are ending up in intensive care units and on ventilators, causing officials from Ohio to California to shutter bars and other businesses that draw large numbers of often-unmasked revelers.
Getting this segment of the population to take the virus threat seriously will be a critical part of driving the numbers down in time for the fall semester to begin at campuses across the nation. Many universities cut back on the number of students allowed on campus for the coming academic year, and in some cases, professors will teach only online.
Anthony Fauci, who serves as the president’s embattled point man on the virus, notes that the average age of those getting infected with the coronavirus is about 15 years younger than a few months ago.
“The more we learn about this disease, the more we realize that many young people may not necessarily get sick enough to go to the hospital, but they can get very sick, put them out of action for weeks at a time,” Fauci says.
Invincibility of youth a virus stimulant
After states eased stay-at-home restrictions several weeks ago, reports abounded of high school and college-age revelers partying in bars, on boats and in lakes, often with no masks or social distancing. There have even been tales of “COVID-parties” where young people tried to get infected.
Someone who has the virus but isn’t sick and doesn’t show symptoms can transmit it to more vulnerable groups.
“It’s harder to put your social life on hold when you’re a young adult,” says Elissa Epel, professor of psychiatry at the University of California-San Francisco.
Epel says behavioral change comes only when the perception of personal risk grows. “If the case can be made to this group that ‘your risk is my risk,’ then that may help them see the gravity of their behavior,” she says.
That dawning realization of co-dependence faces a battle from centuries of American exceptionalism, the notion that the rules that apply to other nations don’t apply here.
Mother Nature knows only one set of rules, experts say, and those fly in the face of a belief that somehow the nation’s coronavirus numbers will decline without any measured sacrifice by its citizens.
“When you have a pandemic and you need to have a science-based response to it by everybody in the society, and you have a population that culturally doesn’t trust science and doesn’t trust authority, you get problems like we’re seeing now, people arguing over masks,” says John Swartzberg, professor emeritus at the University of California-Berkeley who specializes in infectious diseases.
“From outside the country, people would look and say, ‘Are they crazy? Why are they fighting about this?’ ” he says.
To slow the race to 4 million cases, Swartzberg says, people must accept that life may no longer be the same and understand that recovering what we can of that past life depends on how we meet this moment.
“This (virus) is something unique to our generation, and we don’t know how to respond to this, because we’ve never been told that our world has changed and we can’t continue to live the way we were living,” he says. “That’s a big pill to take.”