A year ago, most Americans were just beginning to get the message that the coronavirus pandemic might disrupt their lives.

In the last week of February 2020, there had been only a handful of confirmed cases in the United States, and two reported deaths, both associated with a Seattle nursing home.

Lights surround the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool, placed as a memorial to COVID-19 victims on Jan. 19, with the U.S. Capitol in the background. Associated Press/Alex Brandon

As we reach the anniversary of the first death, we are approaching milestones that would have been unbelievable back then: The United States has diagnosed nearly 30 million cases, and more than 500,000 people have died.

Just as disturbing as those numbers is the accelerating pace of the pandemic. It took almost eight months to record the first 250,000 deaths. The next 250,000 deaths occurred in a little more than three.

The winter surge, which began in early November, appears to have crested, giving some relief to the health care providers who have been pushed to the breaking point. Highly effective vaccines are being manufactured and distributed, creating hope that the worst of the pandemic is behind us.

But everything is relative. A year ago, we would not have expected to feel relieved when the disease is spreading on average to more than 50,000 new cases and more than 1,000 deaths every day.

A half-million lives lost in just one year is a hard fact to put in perspective.

That’s more Americans than were killed in combat on both sides in the Civil War and in World War I, combined. It is more than the Americans lost in World War II. We are approaching the 650,000 deaths caused by the worst infectious disease outbreak in American history, the 1918 influenza pandemic.

America lost about 3,000 lives to the terrorist attacks of 9/11, and for a number of weeks this winter we were losing more than 3,000 people every day to COVID. Who would have predicted a year ago that Americans would become so inured that a 9/11-sized loss of life on a daily basis would seem normal?

As we go through what could be the final months of the coronavirus pandemic, it’s worth reflecting on what we have just lived through.

One thing to remember is that the alarmists in the first months of the pandemic turned out to be right. A controversial model produced by the University of Washington last May predicted that that there would be between 350,000 and 1.2 million American deaths during the course of the pandemic. We still may end up in the upper half of that range.

Another thing to remember is that COVID deniers and opponents of health restrictions have been consistently wrong. When the University of Washington model was released, then-President Donald Trump was still claiming that the death toll would be less than 60,000.

Public health officials do not have a perfect record, but they have been right far more often than their critics, and we have seen again and again that ignoring their guidance has led to more sickness and death.

Where most people followed the rules, such as wearing masks and avoiding indoor gatherings, there were fewer cases. Where the rules were ignored, cases exploded.

We might not have known that a year ago, when there were only two COVID deaths in the whole country. But we know it now, 500,000 lives later, and we should not let ourselves forget it.


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