We don’t actually know how many people have died of complications from covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus that likely arrived in the United States at some point last year. There are a lot of reasons for that, including the uncertainty around when the virus actually arrived.
We don’t know how many people may have died of covid-19 without the disease having been confirmed. We can compare the death toll with prior years and see that the United States recorded hundreds of thousands more deaths in 2020 than in 2019, but at this point we’re talking about a scale at which individual tragedies become blurry. To historians, the difference between 500,500 deaths and 499,500 deaths is a subtle one in the “a million deaths is a statistic” sense. In human terms, those 1,000 deaths are 1,000 people vanished from the Earth sooner than would otherwise have happened.
It’s also unclear how many deaths have occurred because the data we have are necessarily out of date, playing catch-up as deaths occur each day or are tallied from deaths in the past. Virginia, for example, is still logging deaths that occurred during the holidays. As the pandemic emerged, there was no real-time central clearinghouse of data on coronavirus deaths, leading media outlets to generate their own varying counts. Those are usually not in sync.
But even if we knew with certainty that the country’s 500,000th coronavirus death occurred this week, it’s a scale that’s simply beyond our ability to apprehend.