Over the past week, an average of 491 Americans have died of COVID each day, according to data compiled by The New York Times. The week before, the number was 382. The week before that, 494. And so on.
For the past five months or so, the United States has trod along something of a COVID-death plateau. This is good in the sense that after two years of breakneck spikes and plummets, the past five months are the longest we’ve gone without a major surge in deaths since the pandemic’s beginning, and the current numbers are far below last winter’s Omicron highs. (Case counts and hospital admissions have continued to fluctuate but, thanks in large part to the protection against severe disease conferred by vaccines and antivirals, they have mostly decoupled from ICU admissions and deaths; the curve, at long last, is flat.) But though daily mortality numbers have stopped rising, they’ve also stopped falling. Nearly 3,000 people are still dying every week.
We could remain on this plateau for some time yet. Lauren Ancel Meyers, the director of the University of Texas at Austin’s COVID-19 Modeling Consortium, told me that as long as a dangerous new variant doesn’t emerge (in which case these projections would go out the window), we could see only a slight bump in deaths this fall and winter, when cases are likely to surge, but probably—or at least hopefully—nothing too drastic. In all likelihood, though, deaths won’t dip much below their present levels until early 2023, with the remission of a winter surge and the additional immunity that surge should confer. In the most optimistic scenarios that Meyers has modeled, deaths could at that point get as low as half their current level. Perhaps a tad lower.
By any measure, that is still a lot of people dying every day. No one can say with any certainty what 2023 might have in store, but as a reference point, 200 deaths daily would translate to 73,000 deaths over the year. COVID would remain a top-10 leading cause of death in America in this scenario, roughly twice as deadly as either the average flu season or a year’s worth of motor-vehicle crashes.
COVID deaths persist in part because we let them. America has largely decided to be done with the pandemic, even though the pandemic stubbornly refuses to be done with America. The country has lifted nearly all of its pandemic restrictions, and emergency pandemic funding has been drying up. For the most part, people have settled into whatever level of caution or disregard suits them. A Pew Research survey from May found that COVID did not even crack Americans’ list of the top 10 issues facing the country. Only 19 percent said that they consider it a big problem, and it’s hard to imagine that number has gone anywhere but down in the months since. COVID deaths have shifted from an emergency to the accepted collateral damage of the American way of life. Background noise.
On one level, this is appalling. To simply proclaim the pandemic over is to abandon the vulnerable communities and older people who, now more than ever, bear the brunt of its burden. Yet on an individual level, it’s hard to blame anyone for looking away, especially when, for most Americans, the risk of serious illness is lower now than it has been since early 2020. It’s hard not to look away when each day’s numbers are identically grim, when the devastation becomes metronomic. It’s hard to look each day at a number—491, 382, 494—and experience that number for what it is: the premature ending of so many individual human lives.
People grow accustomed to these daily tragedies because to not would be too painful. “We are, in a way, victims of our own success,” Steven Taylor, a psychiatrist at the University of British Columbia who has written one book on the psychology of pandemics and is at work on another, told me. Our adaptability is what allowed us to weather the worst of the pandemic, and it is also what’s preventing us from fully escaping the pandemic. We can normalize anything, for better or for worse. “We’re so resilient at adapting to threats,” Taylor said, that we’ve “even habituated to this.”
Where does that leave us? As the nation claws its way out of the pandemic—and reckons with all of its lasting damage—what do we do with the psychic burden of a death toll that might not decline substantially for a long time? Total inurement is not an option. Neither is maximal empathy, the feeling of each death reverberating through you at an emotional level. The challenge, it seems, is to carve out some sort of middle path. To care enough to motivate ourselves to make things better without caring so much that we end up paralyzed.
Perhaps we will find this path. More likely, we will not. In earlier stages of the pandemic, Americans talked at length about a mythic “new normal.” We were eager to imagine how life might be different—better, even—after a tragedy that focused the world’s attention on disease prevention. Now we’re staring down what that new normal might actually look like. The new normal is accepting 400 COVID deaths a day as The Way Things Are. It’s resigning ourselves so completely to the burden that we forget that it’s a burden at all.
In the time since you started reading this story, someone in the United States has died of COVID. I could tell you a story about this person. I could tell you that he was a retired elementary-school teacher. That he was planning a trip with his wife to San Diego, because he’d never seen the Pacific Ocean. That he was a long-suffering Knicks fan and baked a hell of a peach cobbler, and when his grandchildren visited, he’d get down on his arthritic knees, and they’d play Connect Four, and he’d always let them win. These details, though hypothetical, might sadden you—or sadden you more, at least, than when I told you simply that since you started this story, one person had died of COVID. But I can’t tell you that story 491 times in one day. And even if I could, could you bear to listen?