The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Covid’s U.S. toll: Nearly 300,000 dead and a stalemate between fatalism and hope

A makeshift morgue is built at Bellevue Hospital in New York, as coronavirus cases soared there at the end of March. (Ryan Christopher Jones for The Washington Post)

In April, the deadliest month of the pandemic, an elderly New Yorker in assisted living couldn’t grasp why she was suddenly forbidden to see her friends. In May, two sisters in Michigan, one Republican and the other a Democrat, watched their aged parents suffer from covid-19 and wondered why so many people refused to cover their faces against the virus.

In Florida in October, with 200,000 Americans already dead, a strong young man questioned how dire — how real — the whole crisis was. In wintry South Dakota last month, as the coronavirus hit home with an icy clarity, a man who understood the risk chose not to wear a mask. He just didn’t like being told what to do, his family said.

That man in South Dakota is dead. So is the young man in Florida. And the elderly parents in Michigan and the great-grandmother in New York. Nearly 300,000 Americans have now died of covid-19 — 50,000 of them in the past four weeks.

It took 2½ months for the virus to claim its first 50,000 Americans, then just one month for the death toll to climb to 100,000. The pace of death eased somewhat with warmer weather and more-concerted efforts to encourage mask use. But with the arrival of autumn and the holiday season, the virus surged anew in California, Texas and the South, and then in the Plains and the Midwest. Few safe havens remain.

Between late September and mid-November, the death tally climbed from 200,000 to 250,000. Now it has nearly reached the 300,000 marker in less than half that time — even though treatment of the most severe cases has improved.

The year of the coronavirus is ending much as the pandemic began, with overwhelmed hospitals and thousands of deaths each day. There is still no national plan for curbing the spread of the disease, just a hodgepodge of conflicting local and state approaches to everything from shutdowns to masking up.

The year’s third big wave comes as the nation braces for a winter of clashing winds — dark fatalism about the virus’s spread, widespread fatigue over anti-virus restrictions and growing hope that new vaccines could provide global relief.

At the center of that storm, there is a gutting yet unfathomable fact: Nearly 1 of every 1,000 Americans already has died of covid-19 — the equivalent of losing the entire population of cities such as Orlando, Pittsburgh or St. Louis. There have been more than twice as many American deaths as those killed in World War I. Five times as many as in the Vietnam War. One hundred times as many as in the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

The year of coronavirus has altered or diminished almost every American life. It has ended nearly 300,000 of them.

'A statistic'

When it started, when New York City became a dystopia of wailing ambulance sirens, refrigerator trucks loaded with bodies, and families living in fear of a hacking cough, Sofia Scharf was across the river from the city where she was born and raised. She was 95 and in an assisted-living facility in New Jersey, seven years into her dementia, her memory slipping but her spirit and body intact.

Nearly a century after she was born to Greek Jewish immigrants in a Lower East Side tenement, she played bingo and helped less-mobile residents when they spilled something at meals.

“The staff used to tease her that she would take their jobs away from them if she did too much,” said her daughter, Marissa Shedd, 67, the middle of three children.

Scharf often didn’t remember the other residents’ names, but she relished seeing them.

And then she couldn’t anymore. All residents at Sunrise of Edgewater were confined to their rooms to distance them from the reach of the virus.

The staff explained that Scharf couldn’t go out because of the virus’s alarming spread, but “she didn’t understand why she had to stay in her room,” Shedd said.

Staff members tried to make the separation easier, setting her up with video chats with her family, which just confused her more. “Why don’t you visit?” she asked them. “Come visit.”

The calls continued until Scharf fell ill. As she declined — her adult children honored her wish not to be sent to the hospital — her daughter battled her own covid-19 symptoms. Shedd felt so sick that she could barely talk to her mother. Shedd’s older sister, Davida Scharf, was allowed to say goodbye in person, from behind a shield of protective gear.

Sofia Scharf died at the home on April 10, about a week after she was diagnosed. Her husband, Ben, her companion of seven decades, had died three years earlier.

Last February, Nancy Chouinard took her father out to dinner. Two months later, the world had changed. (Video: The Washington Post)

The couple had met while living in the same Bronx apartment building. They both served their country in World War II, he as a military code-breaker, she in a “Rosie the Riveter” manufacturing job.

Ben became an osteopath and established a practice on Long Island, where Sofia had a habit of packing a picnic and waking her brood early to get to Jones Beach by 8 a.m., before the crowds arrived. After her children were grown, she returned to school and became a medical technician.

In covid’s firestorm in April, there could be no in-person funeral, no shiva gathering. There was, instead, a memorial on Zoom. Scharf’s ashes were shipped to the veterans cemetery in Florida where Ben is at rest.

Eight months later, Shedd recalls her mother as a woman without “an ounce of crudeness or anger. She was very forgiving and just let life be, let people be how they wanted to be.”

Yet her daughter’s memories are forever clouded by the sadness and fear that saturated New York in those first weeks of the outbreak. It’s “a little strange being part of this group of people that died in nursing homes, and your parent is one of them,” Shedd said. “It’s like you become part of a statistic.”

'I love you'

By late May, when a maskless President Trump visited a Ford auto parts plant in Ypsilanti, Mich., that had been rejiggered to produce ventilators for covid patients, he had turned the decision to wear a face covering from a potentially lifesaving act of kindness into a partisan political statement.

By the time Trump came to town, William and Lillian Alcorn’s daughters shared a devotion to masks, even though the sisters were on opposite sides politically. Vada Brewington supported the president and Lillian Rose was counting the days until he could be sent packing, but they agreed on the virus: Do whatever it takes to beat it.

They masked up to protect their parents, even when Rose’s son, a 48-year-old paramedic who suffered his own bout of covid-19, insisted that the bug was no big deal. They became even more devoted to precautions when their own parents became the first residents of their assisted-living facility to contract the virus — and to die of it.

The Alcorns were into their 90s when their daughters concluded they needed more help and got them into an assisted-living facility. But when the virus hit Michigan hard in April — 13 members of their extended family would get covid — the daughters sensed trouble. Lillian, 93 and suffering from heart and thyroid issues, got sick first.

“I knew once it got hold of my mom, she probably wouldn’t survive,” said Rose, the younger daughter. Her mother lasted less than a week after going to the hospital.

Their father, who was 96 and had dementia, ended up in the same hospital, two floors away from his wife, but their daughters didn’t want William Alcorn to know his wife had died.

“We wanted my dad to fight, so we didn’t tell him, because he would have given up,” Rose said. The Alcorns had been together for 74 years.

William — who had worked the assembly line at the General Motors plant in Ypsilanti for 31 years and had a second career as a Baptist minister — remained in the hospital for nearly three weeks, and the daughters could occasionally get him on the phone.

“Dad, I love you,” Rose would tell her father. He’d give his standard reply, speaking for both parents: “We love you too.”

Within hours of their mother’s death, their father changed his answer.

I love you, too,” he said, as if he knew Lillian was gone.

After three weeks, William was released from the hospital, but doctors said the virus had spread to his brain. He died at the assisted-living facility four days later.

The Alcorns’ funerals were restricted to 10 people, and Brewington, 73 and quarantining at home with heart and lung issues, couldn’t attend.

“For three weeks, I just lay here in bed and cried,” she said.

“Naming The Lost,” a 24-hour vigil live-streamed from May 20-21, read out the names of those lost to the coronavirus around the world. (Video: Naming The Lost)

Although Brewington had been largely isolated from everyone but her husband since March, they both came down with covid-19 in June. She’s better now, but still short of breath.

Rose, 68 and a former billing clerk at a hospital, also got covid, in November, though she, too, was religious about mask use.

“Sometimes I wear two,” she said. But her husband visited the VFW post for Veterans Day, and some people there wouldn’t cover their faces.

What the sisters didn’t see in May was how political the pandemic would become, how angry and righteous people would get. Brewington thinks Trump has “done the best he could” to combat the virus. Rose blames Trump for “brainwashing people and dividing us so deeply.”

But the sisters remain united on doing anything possible to curb the virus.

“I’ve tried to figure out why Trump is against the masks,” said Brewington, the Republican. “There’s no rhyme or reason that I can find.”

And they are united in their faith that their parents’ fate was up to a higher power.

“This was God’s way of taking Mom and Dad both at the same time,” Rose said.

“I put it in the Lord’s hands,” Brewington said. “If it’s my time to go, he’s going to take me. You never know how the Lord works.”

'A nightmare'

On a Sunday afternoon in late May, an administrator from the nursing home called LaWanna Bond. Her mother, Elizabeth Hawkins, had tested positive for the coronavirus.

This year had already heaped too much on Bond. Two months earlier, she had lost her brother, who died of what the coroner determined was a cocaine overdose.

Now, more than 100,000 Americans had died of covid and the person on the phone was saying that her mother — who was 68 years old and carried close to 250 pounds on her 5-foot, 8-inch frame — had contracted the virus.

“I just spoke with her and she didn’t mention it,” Bond told the administrator at the home in Stockton, Calif.

“Is she senile?” came the reply. “Sometimes people who are senile forget what they have just been told.”

Hawkins was not senile. Bond called her mother immediately.

The two talked every day, sometimes more than once. Bond, 46, and her five children would gather on FaceTime to stay close to Hawkins, whose kidney problems led her to move into the Golden Living Center — Hy-Pana in October 2019.

No one’s said anything about testing positive, Hawkins told her daughter.

“Have I?” Hawkins asked. “They did move my roommate out and all of them have masks on now.”

Three days later, another call, this one at 3 a.m., waking Bond from hard-won sleep.

“Your mother’s oxygen levels have dropped to a very low level,” the doctor said.

“Why haven’t you taken her to the hospital?” Bond asked.

“We need to hear from you first,” the doctor said.

Bond gave her approval, got out of bed. Within half an hour, she called the home again, and again, and again.

Finally, someone picked up: “Could you get my mother on the phone?” Bond asked.

“She is unresponsive,” the nurse said. “I’m sorry.”

Hawkins died at the start of a post-Memorial Day wave that pushed the U.S. death toll from 100,000 to 150,000 in two months. In California, the virus swept through nursing homes, killing dozens in some places. At the Golden Living Center, which has 119 beds, nearly 50 residents have tested positive and eight have died. Twenty-three staff members also contracted the virus.

Hawkins — who worked in the public schools as a safety monitor and then as a tow-truck dispatcher — was African American, a population that has suffered disproportionately from the virus. She was also obese for much of her adult life, a risk factor associated with lethal outcomes in covid cases.

The speed of her mother’s decline, the loneliness of any covid death — it was all too much for Bond. There had been no father in her childhood, and she had lost the centerpiece of her life. She dialed her mother’s voice mail all summer long, just to hear her voice, until the line was disconnected.

Bond has health insurance through Medicaid, but there were no savings for a funeral. Bond turned to her church, and parishioners donated $4,000 toward the cost.

“This is the first holiday without her, and I’m trying to be strong,” she said. “I have kids and I’m trying my best to keep it together for them.”

Bond said she needs her mother perhaps more than ever in her adult life. She has had to leave her customer service job with Cigna, a health insurance company, to care for her husband, Jederick, who has been diagnosed with colon cancer that has spread to his liver.

He is 53 years old. Doctors have given him weeks to live.

“This year,” Bond said, “has been a nightmare.”

'Didn't have to die'

By summer, coronavirus cases were spiraling out of control in Texas, halting the Sunday swirl of motion and music at San Pedro Springs Park in San Antonio, tearing Manuel “Manolo” Sanchez away from his danza practices, the weekly meditation that brought him closer to his ancestors and to the cosmic connection he sought with nature.

Sanchez’s dance group, Teokalli, tried virtual solutions, but gathering to practice via video chat proved cumbersome. There was nothing quite like their ceremonies: A bellowing blast of a conch shell trumpeted the start, and then drum beats, representing Mother Earth’s heart, pounded as Sanchez’s bare feet caressed the ground.

As coronavirus infections peaked in San Antonio, with the disease disproportionately devastating Native and Latino communities — and with nearly 150,000 Americans having already died of covid — there was no choice but to cancel the danza sessions, an ancient Aztec ritual that Indigenous peoples have kept alive for centuries.

Sanchez knew he was vulnerable. He had been through appendicitis, he was 61 and, as an essential worker — he ran a crew that cleaned hospitals on the city’s two largest military bases — staying home was not an option. He rose at 5 a.m. for the first shift and began a second shift at 5 p.m., relatives said. The long hours gave his family stability but took a toll on his health.

In July, Sanchez tested positive for the coronavirus. His wife, Yvette Mendez, who is Apache, said that as soon as he went to the hospital, “I just got a feeling in my stomach.”

Born in Mexico City, Sanchez came to California in the 1970s as a professional dancer and helped introduce danza to Mexican Americans seeking to reconnect with their roots.

Mendez saw Sanchez perform a solo at Stanford University and was mesmerized by his agility: “I just saw him and knew I wanted to have that man’s baby,” she said.

The couple soon married, had two sons and in the 1990s moved to Texas, where Sanchez started a danza group. He taught scores of Texans dance steps that emerged from ancestral philosophies about achieving balance with nature.

Sanchez loved squash blossom quesadillas, movie nights and sipping mezcal with his friends. Few of his co-workers at the military hospitals knew he held near-mythic status among Aztec dancers.

As Sanchez’s organs began to shut down, as he struggled to breathe without help from a ventilator, nurses called his family to his bedside.

“He waited for us,” Mendez said. “I almost didn’t recognize him. What this disease does is ravage. We saw a shell of the person we knew.”

Covered in protective gear, with her husband barely conscious, Mendez sang him an Apache medicine song to ease his passage to Mictlan, the Aztec underworld.

Sanchez died July 30. Donations from people he had touched through danza raised enough to pay for his traditional funeral. It was streamed live on Facebook to hundreds of viewers.

Some of Sanchez’s loved ones are angry, blaming state and national leaders for the uncontrolled spread of the virus. “I just feel like so many people died needlessly,” Mendez said. “Manolo didn’t have to die.”

'So hard'

“Hey, Mom, don’t come by me, don’t get near me,” Londell Woodbury Jr. called out to his mother when he got home from work on Sept. 17. “I think I might have covid.”

By the time Woodbury, a 23-year-old prison guard, came down with the disease, nearly 200,000 Americans had died of covid. Florida’s numbers were soaring anew, yet the governor forbade local officials from shutting businesses or mandating mask-wearing.

Florida has recorded 189 inmate deaths from covid, among the highest numbers in the country. More than 17,022 inmates have tested positive for the coronavirus, along with 3,882 prison staff.

Woodbury stood in the driveway of the house in Jacksonville that he shared with his mother, Lawanna Brown, 45, and his sister Chassity, who is 11. Brown would normally greet him right there with a hug. But now her son told her not to approach. They had checked his temperature at work. He had a fever.

“Mom, so many people at work have covid,” Woodbury said.

“They told him to go outside or into another room to try to make him a little cooler, so he could go ahead and work,” Brown recalled.

A spokesman for the Florida Department of Corrections declined to comment on whether Woodbury was told to try to cool down so he could return to work at the state prison in Lake Butler, where 325 inmates and 176 staff have tested positive for the coronavirus since March.

At home, Woodbury avoided the front door, instead climbing through a window into his room. “He locked his door so I wouldn’t come in,” Brown said, “because he knew I wanted to see him so badly.”

As the months of coronavirus anxiety crawled by, Brown, a service representative for a Jacksonville health-care company, had been able to work from home. But her son had to go to work. He had just taken the corrections officer job at the state prison in May, seeing it as a steppingstone to a career as a police detective.

The family had been wary of the virus from the start, but the messages from politicians made them wonder. Chassity said she and her brother thought the whole coronavirus scare could be a hoax.

“Before my mom and my brother and everybody got covid, me and my brother, we thought it might be fake,” she said. “The president was saying it was no big deal.”

Her mother said she started out the pandemic “ordering groceries online and washing everything off before I brought it in. But we seemed to be pretty safe, and I thought covid was kind of dying down.” With Trump “saying it was like getting the flu,” Brown said, “we weren’t fearful.”

But now it was real. Brown cleared out her bedroom so her son could quarantine there. He spent the next 10 days at home, bedridden most of the time. Woodbury’s mother and sister dropped meals off outside the bedroom door. They FaceTimed him from the next room.

“My brother would not let me come in,” Chassity recalled. “I tried to sneak in once to see him, but he caught me and locked the door to keep me out.”

A couple of days after Woodbury isolated himself, Brown noticed that she was “really, really tired. I was staying up all night taking care of my son, bringing him food and drink.”

She had caught the virus. Infected, she was free to come into closer contact with her son. She fed and cared for him. He seemed to be improving, Brown said. But then, one day, she called his nickname, “Tigger, Tigger,” and there was no response.

An ambulance took Woodbury to the hospital, where he died three days later, on Oct. 2.

At the funeral, Brown insisted everyone wear masks and undergo temperature checks.

“I had a young, healthy, 23-year-old son, and he’s gone,” said Brown, who has recovered.

After her brother died, Chassity fell off the honor roll at her arts magnet school and dropped out of the Jacksonville Children’s Chorus, where she had been singing for years.

“Things have changed a lot,” she said. “I missed two months of school, and I have to have tutoring now. Normally, I get A’s and B’s, but now I’m getting C’s. I also got a D, and I broke down. It’s been so hard.”


In Mitchell, S.D., for much of the year, the coronavirus was something that happened elsewhere.

A rural community of 15,600 about an hour from Sioux Falls, Mitchell was where one of the state’s earliest covid deaths took place, back in March, when a traveler passing through succumbed. But for the next several months, the coronavirus just wasn’t a fact of local life.

Then, late in the fall, the virus hit hard. The death toll in Davison County, where Mitchell is located, rose from two deaths at the start of October to 41 by the end of November.

Mike Denne, 69, a garrulous locksmith in Mitchell, was no activist, not a vocal anti-masker by any means. He just didn’t wear one.

“He didn’t care for it,” said Cody Denne, his 36-year-old son, who worked with his father at the family’s store, Ron’s Bicycle and Locksmith Shop. Father ran the lock business, son handled the bicycles. “He just didn’t want to wear one. It was old-style, old-man stubbornness.”

Cody’s wife, Kourtney, chalked it up to her father-in-law’s life experience. “He’s that generation,” she said. Mike had survived a heart attack and a bad car wreck, so “covid was just like something he could get through. That was his mentality.”

Mike’s attitude was common.

“We’re in the Midwest and people don’t like to be told what to do,” said Kourtney, a 28-year-old accountant. “Until people go through such a sudden loss, they don’t understand the severity of it.”

The state’s governor, Kristi L. Noem (R), has rejected virus restrictions, refusing to mandate mask-wearing and promising to defy the Biden administration if the new president requires face covering. Over the summer, Noem welcomed visitors to huge, mostly unmasked events like the July fireworks display at Mount Rushmore, where Trump spoke, and the Sturgis motorcycle rally in August, a superspreader event that infected more than 330 people.

In mid-October, Denne fell ill. Admitted to the hospital two days later, he was put on a ventilator and had to be airlifted to a bigger facility in Sioux Falls, where he died on Nov. 6.

His family’s last contact with him came via FaceTime on Oct. 24. The descent was, Kourtney said, “a mind-blowing three weeks.”

Cases in the Dakotas have piled up at the nation’s highest per capita rates this fall. In Mitchell, the mounting misery changed some minds, but not many. The school system mandated masks for students and staff, making in-person classes possible. But when the town council voted last month to impose a mask requirement, opponents raised a stink and the council scrapped most of the penalties for violators.

Denne — who left behind his wife of nearly five decades, Gail, along with four children, nine grandchildren and two great-grandchildren — was still conscious at the hospital when his son texted him about a lock job. Denne didn’t reply. Later, on what would be their final FaceTime call, Cody asked why he hadn’t responded.

His father said: “You gotta learn on your own.”

Wilson reported from Stockton, Calif., and Hernández reported from San Antonio. Annie Gowen in Mitchell, S.D.; Shayna Jacobs in New York and Lori Rozsa in Miami contributed to this report.

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot designed to target both the original virus and the omicron variant. Here’s some guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

Variants: Instead of a single new Greek letter variant, a group of immune-evading omicron spinoffs are popping up all over the world. Any dominant variant will likely knock out monoclonal antibodies, targeted drugs that can be used as a treatment or to protect immunocompromised people.

Tripledemic: Hospitals are overwhelmed by a combination of respiratory illnesses, staffing shortages and nursing home closures. And experts believe the problem will deteriorate further in coming months. Here’s how to tell the difference between RSV, the flu and covid-19.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people. Nearly nine out of 10 covid deaths are people over the age 65.

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