▶ Watch Video: As COVID-19 death toll nears 200K, doctor warns “we are becoming more and more complacent”

The United States has surpassed 200,000 deaths from the coronavirus pandemic, according to Johns Hopkins University, just eight months after the first positive case was identified in a Washington traveler on January 21. Since the pandemic reached global attention in early March, COVID-19 has wreaked havoc across the nation, sickening millions and leaving countless patients hospitalized with life-threatening complications.

The U.S. leads the world in coronavirus deaths and still has the most cases in the world, with over 6.8 million people sickened by the virus since January. There are more than 30.4 million cases worldwide and over 965,000 deaths.

The lives lost were not affected at random. Because pre-existing conditions factor so heavily into virus outcomes, data continues to show that COVID-19 disproportionately affects poor communities of color. According to the CDC, the majority of COVID-19 deaths during the early months of the pandemic occurred in communities with lower incomes and denser populations of people of color. And another potential surge of cases poses the greatest dangers for low-income communities and essential workers such as nurses, restaurant servers, teachers and more.

California and New York were struck a devastating blow by the virus as the nation’s biggest cities struggled to control its spread. After mandatory quarantines and travel restrictions, New York state has reported over 33,000 deaths, while California reached over 15,000. But as densely populated areas have reported fewer cases as the year progresses, the country’s total number of deaths has continued to increase as states that rushed re-openings and other rural areas confirmed large outbreaks. Texas, a state highly criticized for its lax reopening, has a death toll that rivals California’s, reporting over 15,000 deaths. Since August 31, states like Utah, Wyoming, Wisconsin and the Dakotas are recording unprecedented positive coronavirus cases, setting single day records in a move experts are attributing to community spread. 

As elementary, high schools and universities shift to in-person instruction, experts worry about another resurgence of infections. While adolescents are not the primary group at risk for major illness due to COVID-19, children can and have died from the virus. And as health experts receive more data from hospitals across the country, it has become clear that the same disparities that affect older individuals with COVID-19 apply to the growing number of adolescents who are dying from the virus. 

“Clearly, the colleges and universities are bringing in a substantial number of cases, but I think we’re also seeing an ever-growing issue of pandemic fatigue,” Dr. Michael Ostholm, an infectious disease expert and epidemiologist, told CBS News. “We see more and more locations throughout the country. People are basically dismissing the risks of being in group settings. Weddings, funerals, recreational events, concerts are starting to happen more. We’re seeing pressure to open up restaurants and bars. We’re seeing an increasing number of outbreaks associated with bars and restaurants in the country. I think people just decided, it’s really not that big of a deal, it’s over with, and I think we’ll pay for it this fall.”

Beyond pandemic fatigue and superspreader events, fights over the nation’s virus response have dominated the political landscape. There are only 42 days until the 2020 presidential election and President Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden have both staked their election campaigns on their response to the virus. Mr. Trump has continued to eschew doubt in America’s scientific institutions, holding mask-less rallies and speeches in spite of statewide ordinances. However, he has received pushback in recent months for downplaying the virus, including contradicting CDC Director Robert Redfield after he stated a possible vaccine would not be available until the summer of 2021. In an MSNBC town hall, Mr. Trump was criticized for an apparent promotion of herd immunity, a method of virus control Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease doctor, has dismissed for the “unacceptable” amount of lives that would be lost. For Biden, most of his campaign promises have centered around a stronger virus response, although his vice presidential pick, Kamala Harris, recently walked back his comments on imposing a national mask mandate.  

States like New York have proven that aggressive restrictions on gatherings and mask usage has a tangible effect on infection rates, with the state reporting six straight weeks with COVID-19 infections below 1%. While a viable vaccine could help lift intense restrictions in parts of the country, the increasingly polarized response to all forms of virus prevention proves a vaccine would only be as successful as the number of people who choose to receive it.

“Science has to rule the day,” Ostholm said. “If we use anything other than science, we are guaranteed to make major mistakes. And those mistakes will translate into lost lives.”

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