The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A death every 33 seconds

Rosa Galdamez is treated in a tent in the parking of the St. Mary Medical Center in Apple Valley, Calif., on Dec. 10. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

It’s hard to resist the sense that the slowly growing number of deaths in the United States each day is a tragedy of world-shaping proportions. For all of the efforts by some to diminish the death toll and to shrug at the steadily expanding saturation of American hospital beds, our country is losing an American every 33 seconds to covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus that emerged last year.

Every time you listen to Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas,” about five people have died of the virus between the beginning and the end of the song.

What’s emerged over the past three months has done so slowly. On Sept. 12, the number of new cases began to increase, rising from about 34,000 new cases a day to, at this point, more than 219,000. The number of deaths from covid-19 has similarly ballooned, rising from 728 to nearly 2,600 a day.

By now, the pattern is familiar. People feel sick and get a test. It comes back positive. Some of them end up seeking treatment at a hospital. Some of them then die. There are gaps between those events: Someone who tests positive today may not die for several weeks. But the link is clear. People contract the virus. Some of them take a turn for the worse. Some of them don’t survive.

In the winter of 2020, coronavirus cases in California surged to record highs and exhausted staff at an Apple Valley hospital feared the worst was yet to come. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Michael Williamson/The Washington Post)

The spread of the virus is more pervasive now than it has been at any prior point in the pandemic, but that doesn’t mean it’s evenly distributed. In some states, the surge in new cases hasn’t necessarily overloaded hospitals. In others, like California, government data show how the increase in new cases is rapidly choking the ability of health-care systems to accommodate it.

In every state but Kentucky, more intensive care unit beds are in use than were in use three months ago.

Nationally, the picture has varied depending on the scale at which you consider it. The average number of new cases each day has been more than 200,000 for more than a week and continues to slowly climb. The number of new hospitalizations, as recorded by the COVID Tracking Project, is exceeding 4,000 each day. At some point, that hits a chokepoint: You can’t keep admitting people to the hospital if there’s no space to do so. But the number of hospital beds in use nationally, both regular and intensive care, continues to rise. Since Sept. 12, the number of ICU beds in use climbed from an estimated 69 percent to 79 percent.

Again, some of those hospitalizations eventually become deaths. Each of the key metrics — new cases, hospitalizations, new deaths — has followed the same curve over the past three months. The only differences are how long each surge took and how high it went.

Since the third surge in new cases began in mid-September, there’s been a consistent connection between the number of hospitalizations and the number of deaths. The average number of new deaths on a day has consistently been about 1.8 percent of new cases 26 days prior and about 2.3 percent of hospitalizations 10 days earlier. There have been fluctuations, but those patterns have held — as they have for months.

What this means is that we have a sense of what’s likely looming. If we extrapolate outward from the current figures, we see that we might expect to see an average of as many as 3,900 deaths per day by Jan. 12, using the per-case ratio — or, at least, continue to see about 2,600 deaths per day through the end of the month.

We can anticipate a similar death toll at least through the end of the year. By Dec. 31, the United States will be home to 340,000 fewer Americans than it would have been if covid-19 had not emerged in our country.