There have now been 1 million deaths from COVID-19 in the United States since the start of the pandemic more than two years ago, a once unimaginable toll that includes 4,760 lives lost in Utah as of Thursday.
It’s a time not just for reflection on what COVID-19 has taken from the world, but also for what remains, including adapting to life with the deadly virus, said Han Kim, a public health professor from Westminster College in Salt Lake City.
“We can learn from this. We can mourn our dead. We can talk about how so many of them were preventable, and a million is horrific. At the same time, we need to use this, to learn from this. Otherwise, these folks died in vain,” Kim said, calling for Utahns to “not just remember the past but also to look to the future.”
NBC News reported the nation reached 1 million deaths from the virus Wednesday, the most of any country in the world. While the spread of the virus has slowed since previous outbreaks, most recently from the omicron variant earlier this year, it still kills about 360 people daily in the United States, according to the network.
The current U.S. death toll from COVID-19 is roughly equivalent to the population of Utah’s eight largest cities — Salt Lake City, West Valley City, West Jordan, Provo, Orem, Sandy, St. George and Ogden — plus Murray, according to recent census figures.
Utahns ranked 38th nationwide in the total number of lives lost from the virus, based on the state health department’s April 28 update, and 49th in deaths per 1 million people, with only Vermont and Hawaii reporting fewer on a list that includes Washington, D.C., compiled by worldometers.info.
Kim said Utah fared better than many other states because of its younger and healthier population, due to lower rates of smoking, substance abuse and obesity, as well as fewer communities of color and other minority populations with a higher risk of dying from the virus.
“That’s a natural advantage. It’s nothing that Utah did,” the professor said, adding, “It was just that we were lucky.”
The United States having the world’s highest death toll shows “we as a country have failed at addressing this disaster. We’ve basically taken a ‘laissez faire’ approach,” Kim said. “We basically weighed the economic costs versus deaths and we said the economy was more important.”
The Utah Legislature ended a statewide mask mandate last year and limited the power of local authorities to respond to public health emergencies. Gov. Spencer Cox announced in February Utah’s move to a “steady state” response to the pandemic where the virus is treated more like the flu or other disease with limited outbreaks.
Reacting more quickly to the pandemic, keeping mask mandates and other measures intended to stop the spread of COVID-19 in place longer, and figuring out how to “shut out some of the anti-vax noise or conspiracy theories” that prevented people from getting vaccinated against the virus would have saved lives, he said.
In Utah, which saw 13 more COVID-19 deaths along with an increase of 3,226 cases and 88 additional hospitalizations for the virus since the last weekly update from the Utah Department of Health, only 62% of all Utahns have gotten the initial shots while just over 28% have also been boosted.
“I think the most shocking aspect of this is how many of those deaths were preventable,” Kim said, adding the actual toll the virus has taken is likely higher due to underreporting of COVID-19 as a cause of death, especially in the early days of the pandemic.
But even though he said he believes many people have become numb to the numbers, they may still react to hitting the 1 million mark.
“Whatever it takes, whatever the reason, we should remember,” Kim said, calling, too, for optimism.
“It could have been a lot worse. So I think that’s the other important thing, is not to look back and be angry but also to look back and be thankful,” he said. “A lot of the things that we did do, did work. So it would be a disservice to forget about them. A lot of us are here because of these interventions.”
Going forward, the professor said Utahns still need to pay attention to COVID-19. Currently, cases are continuing to rise in Utah, thanks to new “stealth omicron” subvariants of the virus that fueled surges back east, while even newer versions of COVID-19 are turning up overseas.
“I think we should be mindful,” Kim said, maybe wearing a mask again for a trip to the supermarket or skipping indoor parties when counts are headed up. “I don’t think we should panic. We know these are going to go up and down. Again, it’s moderating” between being “completely on edge versus completely relaxed.”