COVID’s cruel US toll likely to surpass 1 million deaths soon

Soon, likely in the next few weeks, the U.S. toll from the coronavirus will surpass 1 million.

Through wave after wave, the virus has compiled a merciless chronology of loss — one by one by one. If losing one person leaves such a lasting void, consider all that’s been lost with the deaths of 1 million. From the first deaths on the West Coast to the soaring toll in New York, and then every place in between, the nation has been marked by unfathomable loss.

On the deadliest day of a horrific week in April 2020, COVID took the lives of 816 people in New York City alone. Lost in the blizzard of pandemic data that’s been swirling ever since is the fact that 43-year-old Fernando Morales was one of them.

Two years and nearly 1 million deaths later, his brother, Adam Almonte, fingers the bass guitar Morales left behind and visualizes him playing tunes, a treasured blue bucket hat pulled low over his eyes. Walking through a park overlooking the Hudson River, he recalls long-ago days tossing a baseball with Morales and sharing tuna sandwiches. He replays old messages just to hear Morales’ voice.

“When he passed away it was like I lost a brother, a parent and a friend all at the same time,” says Almonte, 16 years younger than Morales, who shared his love of books, video games and wrestling, and worked for the city processing teachers’ pensions. “I used to call him just any time I was going through something difficult and I needed reassurance, knowing he would be there… That’s an irreplaceable type of love.”

<p>Adam Almonte holds a photo of him with his older brother, Fernando Morales, on a bench where they used to sit and eat tuna sandwiches after playing catch in Fort Tryon Park in New York. Morales died April 7, 2020, from COVID-19 at age 43.</p>

AP Photo/David Goldman

Adam Almonte holds a photo of him with his older brother, Fernando Morales, on a bench where they used to sit and eat tuna sandwiches after playing catch in Fort Tryon Park in New York. Morales died April 7, 2020, from COVID-19 at age 43.

“We’re dealing with numbers that humans are just not able to comprehend,” says Sara Cordes, a professor of psychology at Boston College who studies the way people perceive quantity. “I can’t comprehend the lives of 1 million at one time and I think this is sort of self-preservation, to only think about the few that you have heard about.”

It goes far beyond faces and names.

COVID-19 has left an estimated 194,000 children in the U.S. without one or both of their parents. It has deprived communities of leaders, teachers and caregivers. It has robbed us of expertise and persistence, humor and devotion.

It began even before the threat had really come into focus. In February 2020, an unfamiliar respiratory illness started spreading through a nursing home outside Seattle, the Life Care Center of Kirkland.

Neil Lawyer, 84, was a short-term patient there, recovering after hospitalization for an infection. On the last Wednesday of the month he joined other residents for a belated Mardi Gras party. But the songs that filled the entertainment room were interrupted by frequent coughing. Before week’s end, the facility was in lockdown. Days later Lawyer, too, fell ill.

“By the time he got to the hospital they allowed us to put on these space suits and go in and see him,” son David Lawyer says. “It was pretty surreal.”

When the elder Lawyer died of complications from COVID-19 on March 8, the U.S. toll stood at 30. Eventually 39 Life Care residents and seven others linked to the facility perished in the outbreak.

<p>David Lawyer visits the grave of his father, Neil Lawyer, for the first time since the inscription went up on his tombstone in Seattle on March 20, 2022.</p>

AP Photo/David Goldman

David Lawyer visits the grave of his father, Neil Lawyer, for the first time since the inscription went up on his tombstone in Seattle on March 20, 2022.

By any account, Lawyer, known to his family as “Moose,” lived a very full life. Born on a Mississippi farm to parents whose mixed-race heritage subjected them to bitter discrimination, he became the first in his family to graduate from college.

Trained as a chemist, he took an assignment in Belgium with a U.S. company and stayed for more than two decades. Fellow expats knew him for his devotion to coaching baseball and for the rich baritone he brought to community theater and vocal ensembles.

“He had the most velvet-like voice,” says Marilyn Harper, who harmonized with Lawyer many times. “He loved to perform, but not in a showy way. He just got such great pleasure.”

After Lawyer and his wife retired to Bellevue, Washington to be near two of their children, he embraced his role as grandfather of 17.

When his energy for performing diminished, he visited clubs to hear his grandson play guitar. At weddings, he joined his sons, grandson and nephew to serenade brides and grooms in a makeshift ensemble dubbed the Moose-Tones.

Last October, when one of his granddaughters married, it marked the first family affair without Lawyer there to hold court. The Moose-Tones went on without him.

“He would have just been beaming because, you know, it was the most important thing in the world to him late in life, to get together with family,” David Lawyer says.

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By the end of March 2020, deaths in the U.S. topped 3,500 and the federal government’s lead expert on infectious diseases, Dr. Anthony Fauci, predicted COVID would eventually take more than 100,000 lives.

Still, the idea that the toll could reach 1 million was “almost certainly off the chart,” he said at the time. “Not impossible, but very, very unlikely.”

Then deaths in the Northeast began to soar. Then-President Donald Trump dropped talk of reopening the nation by Easter. In April 2020, the U.S. surpassed Italy as the country with the most COVID deaths.

Read the full story here, and scroll through a gallery of images of COVID’s toll on the U.S.: