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The Grief Behind The Nearly 300,000 COVID-19 Deaths

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

There is no event in recent U.S. history that compares to the scale of death brought on by the coronavirus. Today, the death toll from COVID-19 is expected to surpass 300,000. That is more than the total American fatalities in World War II. Reporter Will Stone has been talking with those closest to this loss.

WILL STONE, BYLINE: More than 300,000 deaths - it is the latest sign of a tragedy that is killing one American about every 36 seconds. For Brian Walter, it leaves an expanse of grief that cannot be captured by the statistics.

BRIAN WALTER: The numbers do not reflect that these were people.

STONE: One of them was Walter's 80-year-old father John. He died during New York's spring surge.

WALTER: He was a very caring, loving man to his family and his friends. You know, everyone lost was a father or a mother. They had kids. They had family. They left people behind.

STONE: Walter helps run a support group on Facebook for people who've lost loved ones to COVID. He says so many of them are grieving in isolation and with disbelief, watching many Americans not acknowledge what is happening.

WALTER: It is not over. And it is not a joke. It is not a hoax. And you will not understand how horrible this is until it takes away someone from your family.

STONE: In recent weeks, COVID-19 has become the leading cause of death in the U.S., ahead of heart disease. Martha Phillips, an ER nurse, says there are certain moments that stay with her, like reaching down to adjust the oxygen of her patient in Houston.

MARTHA PHILLIPS: She looks up at me, and she sees me through my goggles and my mask and my shield, meets my eyes, and she goes, do you think I'm going to get better?

STONE: In her head, Phillips thought, you're too far gone; you're going to die.

PHILLIPS: That was the hardest one. What do you say to someone who's not ready to die, who has so much to live for? But they got this, and now they're trapped.

STONE: The country has entered a wrenching stage of the pandemic. A vaccine is here. Still, by the end of January, the U.S. is expected to have lost more people to COVID-19 than service members to World War II. It's maddening to Darrell Owens, a nurse practitioner at the University of Washington. He says it's like the pandemic is a big storm.

DARRELL OWENS: But some people are in a yacht, and some people are on a cruise ship, and some people are on a raft. So we're not all in this together.

STONE: Owens has cared for COVID patients at the end of life since the spring, and still, he sees purpose in the work, even if so much was preventable. The other day, that meant accompanying a woman from a nursing home at the very end.

OWENS: And I held her hand for probably 25 minutes, until she took her last breath. And she died.

STONE: Then he stepped out and called her daughter.

OWENS: And it made such a difference for her that her mom was not alone. There's a face behind the 300,000.

STONE: And yet so much of this loss is happening in a hospital wing - out of sight for most of us.

For NPR News, I'm Will Stone.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the on-air version of this story, the host incorrectly reported that the death toll from COVID-19 of 300,000 is more than the total American fatalities in World War II. Reporter Will Stone says the toll may get to that point early next year if the trend continues.]

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: December 13, 2020 at 10:00 PM MST
In the on-air version of this story, the host incorrectly reported that the death toll from COVID-19 of 300,000 is more than the total American fatalities in World War II. Reporter Will Stone says the toll may get to that point early next year if the trend continues.
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