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Grim Milestone: U.S. Reaches 250,000 Deaths From COVID-19

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We have said the words grim milestone so many times over the past eight months on this program, and yet here we are once more. The number this time - 250,000. Two hundred and fifty thousand people in this country have died from the coronavirus, a quarter of a million people. Each digit in that number, a life now gone, their loved ones now grieving. The collective loss is hard to measure.

NPR health correspondent Rob Stein joins us now. Rob, good morning. Can you help us wrap our minds around the scale of 250,000 lives lost?

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: You know, Rachel, each of these terrible new milestones is so big they can start to feel incomprehensible. So I've been struggling to find a way to put such a terrible tragedy into some kind of context. It's hard. But 250,000 deaths is about five times the number of U.S. troops killed in combat in Vietnam. It's nearly five times the number of Americans who died in combat in World War I. And it's getting close to the 291,000 Americans who perished in four years of fighting during World War II.

I talked about this with Dr. Howard Markel. He's a medical historian at the University of Michigan.

HOWARD MARKEL: There has been no experience in American history in the last century that has caused this much carnage - no war, no natural disaster and no infectious disease pandemic, with the exception of the 1918-1919 flu pandemic.

STEIN: The CDC says the 1918 flu killed about 675,000 people in the United States, but the official U.S. death toll from the coronavirus is believed to be a gross underestimate. The true toll is probably already tens of thousands of deaths higher. And then there are so many other people who survived but suffered horrible illness, many of whom are still recovering and may never fully recover.

MARTIN: So you've been talking to doctors, public health experts, I mean, for months on end. What do they say about this moment?

STEIN: You know, they're just heartbroken and frustrated. You know, when 100,000 lives were lost back in May, they hoped it would be a wake-up call. And when 200,000 lives were lost in September, they hoped it would finally set off alarms like, you know, some sort of declaration of war. But now here we are.

Let's listen to Dr. Carlos del Rio. He's an infectious disease doctor at Emory University.

CARLOS DEL RIO: Just none of us thought it would happen. And it just makes me incredibly sad because those are not numbers. Those are people. Those are persons. They have names. They have families. They have friends. And the death toll is just staggering.

STEIN: And, you know, one of the most frightening things about this is if you look at what's happening right now, the worst could yet be still to come.

MARTIN: So let's talk about that. What does that mean, practically speaking? I mean, obviously, more cases, a higher death toll.

STEIN: You know, Rachel, it's just terrifying. The virus is running rampant from coast to coast. More than 150,000 new infections are being reported every day. More than 1,200 new deaths are reported day after day. It's like several jumbo jets crashing every day. So doctors are literally pleading with people to do what needs to be done and protect themselves and protect those around them, especially as we head into the holidays, so more of us can be thankful for our health on Thanksgiving.

MARTIN: Indeed. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein. Thank you.

STEIN: You bet, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.