As the mortality rate from COVID-19 continues to climb nationwide, researchers at the Virginia Commonwealth University state in a new JAMA editorial that the virus has emerged as the leading cause of death in the U.S. — killing more than 3,000 Americans a day.
To put the daily death toll from COVID-19 in context, the researchers state: “The daily U.S. mortality rate for COVID-19 deaths is equivalent to the September 11, 2001, attacks, which claimed 2,988 lives, occurring every 1.5 days, or 15 Airbus 320 jetliners, each carrying 150 passengers, crashing every day.”
The authors of the editorial — Dr. Steven H. Woolf, the director of the Virginia Commonwealth University Center on Society and Health; Derek A. Chapman, associate professor in the division of epidemiology; and Jong Hyung Lee — noted that “daily mortality rates for heart disease and cancer, which for decades have been the two leading causes of death, are approximately 1,700 and 1,600 deaths per day, respectively. With COVID-19 mortality rates now exceeding these thresholds, this infectious disease has become deadlier than heart disease and cancer, and its lethality may increase further as transmission increases with holiday travel and gatherings and with the intensified indoor exposure that winter brings.”
The lead author of the study, Woolf, tells Yahoo Life: “Our country has allowed COVID-19 to grow from a rare disease to the leading cause of death, surpassing major killers like heart disease and cancer. The tragedy is that much of this was preventable, and we wrote this piece to sound the alarm that action must be taken now to avoid further catastrophe.”
Dr. Iahn Gonsenhauser, chief quality and patient safety officer at the Ohio State Wexner Medical Center, tells Yahoo Life: “This is a staggering and sobering affirmation that the COVID pandemic has exacted a terrible human toll and that each and every one of us should be focused on doing everything we can do to change the trajectory of this crisis.”
Large-scale loss can be hard to comprehend
It’s difficult for most people to comprehend such large-scale losses. Part of the problem is also that the death toll is “a bit out of sight, out of mind,” Dr. Thomas Giordano, professor and section chief of infectious diseases at Baylor College of Medicine, tells Yahoo Life. “It is happening in hospitals that are largely closed to visitors, and you’re not seeing the funerals and wakes with as much regularity” due to COVID-19 restrictions and stay-at-home orders. “I notice it most on the obituary page. If you read those, you’ll see it,” he says. “The death toll is quite staggering.”
Giordano also says that it’s hard for people to react to a potential risk, “especially when it’s something you can’t see or feel — it’s a virus,” he explains.
He adds: “Trying to get people to change behavior when there’s a threat out there that they think is not relevant to them is hard. A lot of people who get [COVID-19] get better and are fine. And when your experience is, ‘Everyone I know is fine, or someone I know got it and died because he was really old and sick,’ people tend to minimize that kind of risk.”
Both Woolf and Gonsenhauser also say that “misinformation” about the seriousness of the virus and how it is spread has only added to the challenge. “It is both difficult to comprehend and, for some, difficult to trust,” says Gonsenhauser. “The plague of viral misinformation unleashed this year is the only thing we’ve seen that is even more contagious than COVID-19 in 2020.” He adds that the “intentional undermining of the public confidence in media and in the scientific establishment have created additional challenges.”
Woolf agrees, telling Yahoo Life: “There has been too much misinformation, much of it coming from politicians at the highest level seeking to downplay the pandemic and sow doubt about the science and motives of public health experts. They put lives at risk for self-interest, and we now have a catastrophe on our hands. I worry that the good news about the vaccine will tempt people to let down their guard, not realizing that the vaccine may not come fast enough to save them.”
When will the death toll start to slow down?
While the newly approved Pfizer vaccine is now being rolled out to high-risk people first, including health care workers, Gonsenhauser says it’s difficult to say when deaths from COVID-19 will start to slow down. “We likely have not seen the peak daily deaths resulting from surging numbers immediately following the Thanksgiving holiday,” Gonsenhauser says, “and depending on behavior during the December holidays, we cannot assume that the current trend will reverse until after the new year. That said, we are seeing a positive impact of the novel therapeutics that are being used, and vaccination of our highest-risk populations will also begin to impact the death toll in the near future.”
Woolf estimates it will be “months” before we can “vaccinate enough of the population to bring down the rate of infections.” But, he says, “we could bend the curve a lot faster if the public took action. If we all wore masks, maintained social distance and avoided large gatherings, we’d see infections drop in short order. It’s the lack of discipline that’s killing us.”
For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides.
Read more from Yahoo Life:
Want lifestyle and wellness news delivered to your inbox? Sign up here for Yahoo Life’s newsletter.