One Day, 3,000 Deaths

The pandemic set a devastating record today. It will not be the last.

Medical staff push a stretcher with a deceased patient into a car outside of a COVID-19 intensive-care unit in Houston, Texas.
Go Nakamura / Getty

Today states reported 3,054 deaths from COVID-19—the highest single-day total yet, according to the COVID Tracking Project at The Atlantic.

The seven-day average of daily deaths was also at a record high, of 2,276 deaths. Since mid-October, the U.S. death toll from COVID-19 has been climbing relentlessly, with only a brief dip in the days after Thanksgiving, when states delayed reporting daily data. This past weekend the seven-day deaths average for the first time surpassed the record set in the spring surge.

Today, too, the seven-day averages for reported new daily COVID-19 cases and currently hospitalized patients were at record highs, at 204,356 and 102,580 respectively. But because testing was so limited early in the pandemic, creating undercounts of both COVID-19 cases and related hospitalizations, the deaths number marks the clearest comparison with the spring. There is no doubt now: This is the worst moment of the pandemic so far.

Just three weeks ago, as case numbers were rising, The Atlantic wrote that predicting the deaths that would follow “has become a matter of brutal arithmetic,” and that the U.S. could cross the threshold of averaging 2,000 daily deaths within a month. The country reached that moment even sooner than expected.

With cases rising still, the math stays the same: More deaths will follow these, as 2020 turns to 2021. The pandemic’s end may be in sight, but each day that passes before then will mark the deaths of thousands more Americans.

These fatality numbers do not reflect any increased spread from Thanksgiving. Statistical analyses have found that deaths tend to rise roughly three weeks after confirmed cases. Looking back to November 18, the seven-day average number of cases was substantially lower than it is now. Three weeks from today will be December 30, and if the trends that we’ve seen through the pandemic continue to hold, there’s no reason to expect that today’s death record will be the last.