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US deaths surpass 500K, confirming virus’s tragic reach
The U.S. death toll from COVID-19 has almost topped 500,000 — a number so staggering that a top health researcher says it is hard to imagine an American who hasn't lost a relative or doesn't know someone who died

For weeks after Cindy Pollock began planting tiny flags across her yard — one for each of the more than 1,800 Idahoans killed by COVID-19 — the toll was mostly a number. Until two women she had never met rang her doorbell in tears, seeking a place to mourn the husband and father they had just lost.

Then Pollock knew her tribute, however heartfelt, would never begin to convey the grief of a pandemic that has now claimed 500,000 lives in the U.S. and counting.

“I just wanted to hug them,” she said. “Because that was all I could do.”

After a year that has darkened doorways across the U.S., the pandemic surpassed a milestone Monday that once seemed unimaginable, a stark confirmation of the virus’s reach into all corners of the country and communities of every size and makeup.

President Joe Biden held a sunset moment of silence and a candle-lighting ceremony at the White House and ordered American flags lowered at federal buildings for the next five days.

“We have to resist becoming numb to the sorrow,” Biden said. “We have to resist viewing each life as a statistic or a blur.”

The U.S. toll is by far the highest reported in the world, accounting for 20 percent of the nearly 2.5 million coronavirus deaths globally, though the true numbers are thought to be significantly greater, in part because many cases were overlooked, especially early in the outbreak.

“It’s very hard for me to imagine an American who doesn’t know someone who has died or have a family member who has died,” said Ali Mokdad, a professor of health metrics at the University of Washington in Seattle. “We haven’t really fully understood how bad it is, how devastating it is, for all of us.”

Experts warn that about 90,000 more deaths are likely in the next few months, despite a massive campaign to vaccinate people. Meanwhile, the nation’s trauma continues to accrue in a way unparalleled in recent American life, said Donna Schuurman of the Dougy Center for Grieving Children & Families in Portland, Oregon.

At other moments of epic loss, like the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Americans have pulled together to confront crisis and console survivors. But this time, the nation is deeply divided. Staggering numbers of families are dealing with death, serious illness and financial hardship. And many are left to cope in isolation, unable even to hold funerals.

“In a way, we’re all grieving,” said Schuurman, who has counseled the families of those killed in terrorist attacks, natural disasters and school shootings.

In recent weeks, virus deaths have fallen from more than 4,000 reported on some days in January to an average of fewer than 1,900 per day.

Still, at half a million, the toll recorded by Johns Hopkins University is already greater than the population of Miami or Kansas City, Missouri. It is roughly equal to the number of Americans killed in World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War combined. It is akin to a 9/11 every day for nearly six months.

The toll, accounting for 1 in 5 deaths reported worldwide, has far exceeded early projections, which assumed that federal and state governments would marshal a comprehensive and sustained response and individual Americans would heed warnings.

Instead, a push to reopen the economy last spring and the refusal by many to maintain social distancing and wear face masks fueled the spread.

The figures alone do not come close to capturing the heartbreak.

“I never once doubted that he was not going to make it. ... I so believed in him and my faith,” said Nancy Espinoza, whose husband, Antonio, was hospitalized with COVID-19 last month.

The couple from Riverside County, California, had been together since high school. They pursued parallel nursing careers and started a family. Then, on Jan. 25, Nancy was called to Antonio’s bedside just before his heart beat its last. He was 36 and left behind a 3-year-old son.

“Today it’s us. And tomorrow it could be anybody,” Nancy Espinoza said.

By late last fall, 54 percent of Americans reported knowing someone who had died of COVID-19 or had been hospitalized with it, according to a Pew Research Center poll. The grieving was even more widespread among Black Americans, Hispanics and other minorities.

Deaths have nearly doubled since then, with the scourge spreading far beyond the Northeast and Northwest metropolitan areas slammed by the virus last spring and the Sun Belt cities hit hard last summer.

In some places, the seriousness of the threat was slow to sink in.

When a beloved professor at a community college in Petoskey, Michigan, died last spring, residents mourned, but many remained doubtful of the threat’s severity, Mayor John Murphy said. That changed over the summer after a local family hosted a party in a barn. Of the 50 who attended, 33 became infected. Three died, he said.

“I think at a distance people felt ‘This isn’t going to get me,’” Murphy said. “But over time, the attitude has totally changed from ‘Not me. Not our area. I’m not old enough,’ to where it became the real deal.”

For Anthony Hernandez, whose Emmerson-Bartlett Memorial Chapel in Redlands, California, has been overwhelmed handling burial of COVID-19 victims, the most difficult conversations have been the ones without answers, as he sought to comfort mothers, fathers and children who lost loved ones.

His chapel, which arranges 25 to 30 services in an ordinary month, handled 80 in January. He had to explain to some families that they would need to wait weeks for a burial.

“At one point, we had every gurney, every dressing table, every embalming table had somebody on it,” he said.

In Boise, Idaho, Pollock started the memorial in her yard last fall to counter what she saw as widespread denial of the threat. When deaths spiked in December, she was planting 25 to 30 new flags at a time. But her frustration has been eased somewhat by those who slow or stop to pay respect or to mourn.

“I think that is part of what I was wanting, to get people talking,” she said, “Not just like, ‘Look at how many flags are in the yard today compared to last month,’ but trying to help people who have lost loved ones talk to other people.”

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Associated Press video journalist Eugene Garcia contributed to this story.


National
Study: Millions of COVID-19 cases undiagnosed

BALTIMORE — For every documented coronavirus infection during the first six months of the pandemic last year, five cases slipped by undiagnosed — 16.8 million — according to a federal study led by a University of Maryland, Baltimore County graduate.

The results of the National Institutes of Health study led by immunologist Dr. Kaitlyn Sadtler “suggest a much larger spread of the COVD-19 pandemic than originally thought,” wrote Sadtler, who heads the Section for Immunoengineering at NIH’s National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering. The study reviewed data from January through July of last year as the pandemic ramped up across the country.

The study also indicates that Black and Hispanic communities were hit hardest by the virus from its outset.

The 16.8 million figure falls in line with estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention regarding undiagnosed Americans, which said 1 in 4.6 cases had gone unreported in the first half of 2020.

“I don’t want to say it surprised me,” Sadtler said, but “putting that number in front of you and knowing that it’s based on laboratory research … I can trust this number. That says a lot.”

Solid numbers on the virus’s true toll have eluded health officials because of the shoddy rollout of diagnostic coronavirus testing across the U.S. during the first wave of infections and the prevalence of asymptomatic carriers who may not know to get tested, said Dr. Gigi Gronvall, an immunologist and professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

“This type of study is really important for public health decision-making,” Gronvall said. “It’s really important for officials to know if there are particular groups that are not getting the resources they need, or care or preventative measures.”

Researchers analyzed blood samples sent by mail to Sadtler’s Bethesda lab from a representative sample of more than 9,000 volunteers who had never been diagnosed with COVID-19.

Using an enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay, a test that detects antibodies, researchers determined volunteers’ seropositivity — whether or not their blood serum contained anti-spike protein antibodies that appear in those who have carried the virus.

Of Black study participants, 14.2% were found to have natural coronavirus antibodies. That figure dropped to 6.8% among Native American and Pacific Islander volunteers and 6.1% among Hispanic participants.

And among white volunteers, the study showed 2.5% were undiagnosed carriers, and 2% of undiagnosed Asian carriers.

“Clearly there’s something — or in the case of this pandemic, many things — wrong with the way that we approach ... public health resources and medical care,” Gronvall said.

In addition to factors such as race, age, ethnicity, sex and location, researchers also gathered information on socioeconomic and health factors — data Sadtler wants to dig into more to confirm if higher coronavirus infection rates among people of color track those factors, which in the U.S. often differ across racial lines.

“If we’re only looking at white, suburban individuals in a certain area, that tells us nothing about our neighbors in a different state, or in the inner city,” Sadtler said.

Through funding from the National Cancer Institute’s Serological Sciences Network, Sadtler’s team is repeating the study, which has yet to be peer reviewed, with the same participants in the second half of 2020 and again throughout 2021.

In the next rounds, Sadtler wants to assess antibody duration to see how long infection-induced antibody immunity may last in asymptomatic cases.

Repeating the study may also address the uncertainty surrounding reinfection rates, but researchers will have to account for inoculation-induced antibodies and cross-check the original coronavirus variant detected in volunteers in the first half of 2020 with new coronavirus variants, Sadtler said.

“I’m really looking forward to the next time-point and the time-point after that and understanding the immunology behind it,” Sadtler said. “I mean that 16.8 million number; how does that not sit with you?”

Gronvall cautions against viewing the findings as an indicator of the country’s progress toward herd immunity, when the majority of a given population develops antibodies that prevent infection spread.

“Herd immunity has never been achieved without vaccination in modern times,” she said.


State-and-regional
alert
Death penalty abolition legislation ready for Virginia governor's signature

Virginia is just a historic signature away from eliminating the death penalty after sometimes emotional debate in the General Assembly on Monday.

In 22-16 and 57-42 votes, largely along party lines, the Virginia Senate and House, respectively, passed identical death penalty abolition bills backed by Gov. Ralph Northam, to end centuries of capital punishment in Virginia that has led to nearly 1,400 executions since 1608.

“Over Virginia’s long history, this Commonwealth has executed more people than any other state. And, like many other states, Virginia has come too close to executing an innocent person. It’s time we stop this machinery of death,” said Northam and Democratic leaders of the House and Senate in a prepared statement.

Virginia will become the first Southern state to abolish the death penalty and join 22 other states that do not have capital punishment.

Virginia has also executed 113 people in modern times, the second most among states, since the U.S. Supreme Court allowed the death penalty to resume in 1976.

The identical bills, HB 2263 and SB 1165, were introduced by Del. Mike Mullin, D-Newport News, and Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax. The House and Senate each earlier passed its own bill and then on Monday the matching bill from the other chamber. The bills must first be enrolled and then sent to the governor’s desk.

The legislation will make the 15 kinds of crimes that are now capital murder — and punishable by death or life in prison without parole — aggravated murder punishable by life in prison.

However, in current law and under the new law, a judge, except in the case of the murder of a police officer in the line of duty, can still sentence someone to a sentence less than life — something that rarely has happened.

The Senate on Monday rejected, for the second time, an amendment by Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, who opposes the death penalty, that would mean that all 15 types of capital murder — not just the murder of a police officer — would require true life sentences.

Stanley argued he wanted to vote for abolition — as did some other Republicans — if the public could be assured that people convicted of such heinous crimes are never released. Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel, R-Fauquier, was the only Republican voting for abolition in the Senate.

Surovell, arguing for passage of the House bill by the Senate, said that while the death penalty involves a relatively small number of people, it will send a strong message that Virginia is leading the world again on justice and human rights.

The debate got somewhat emotional in the House on Monday.

Mullin, his voice breaking at times, urged his colleagues to pass the Senate version of his bill. He said he was recently in Jamestown near the site of Virginia’s first execution. “Our commonwealth, since that time, has expressed a blood lust second to none in this country.”

“There is no separating the death penalty in Virginia from racism. They are inextricably linked. It’s a random, arbitrary and racist process. In fact, it wasn’t even until 1997, that Virginia even executed a white person for killing a Black and even that’s only happened four times,” Mullin said.

Mullin raised the case of Earl Washington Jr., wrongfully convicted of a 1982 rape and murder in Culpeper, who came within days of execution and was later proven innocent by DNA testing.

“We cannot remove human error from this system,” Mullin said.

Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, the House minority leader, said that in the debate on the issue in both houses in recent weeks, the Democrats have failed to express “even a little concern” for the victims of crime.

“Just once, I would love to see the delegate from Newport News or anybody else in the Democratic caucus, express even a tenth of the same emotion that [Mullin] just expressed, some measure, no matter how small, of angst, of regret, of concern not for cold-blooded murderers but for people who’ve been robbed, who have been stolen from, whose homes have been broken into, whose loved ones have been murdered,” Gilbert said.

Del. Rob Bell, R-Albemarle, said it has been said by some that in this vote “’the eyes of the world are upon us.’” He said, “There’s two people watching that have a particular interest because they are the only two Virginians right now on death row.”

The legislation means the two men would serve life in prison without parole and not be executed.

One is Thomas Alexander Porter, 45, sentenced to die for the 2005 capital murder of Stanley Reaves, an officer with the Norfolk Police Department. The other is Anthony B. Juniper, 49, sentenced to death for the 2004 capital murders of Keshia Stephens; her brother Rueben Harrison III; and two of her daughters, Nykia Stephens, 4, and Shearyia Stephens, 2.

Bell graphically outlined their crimes including gunshots to the head. “They’re watching. Oh, my goodness they’re watching. The loud cheering that you’re about to hear from [death row] can metaphorically be heard at the graveside of those five crime victims,” Bell said.

“We have five dead Virginians that this bill will make sure that their killers do not receive justice and I hope you’ll vote against the bill,” Bell said.

Mullin responded, “I have spent 14 years of my life as a criminal prosecutor. I have handled cases of murder and dismemberment ... how dare any member of this body say that I do not care for the victims of crime. And I know that there are people of good will on all sides of the issue, but how dare you?”

Del. Chris Hurst, D-Montgomery, spoke about the slaying of his girlfriend, Alison Parker, a reporter for WDBJ in Roanoke, and cameraman Adam Ward, who were shot to death during a live broadcast in 2015 by a man who later took his own life.

“Fortunately now I have been able to move forward in my life,” said Hurst, a former anchorperson at the station. He mentioned Rachel Sutphin, whose father was one of two law enforcement officers slain by William Morva — executed in 2017 — and who favors abolition of the death penalty.

Hurst said, “When the other side says we don’t care about victims, you come for me. When the other side says you don’t care about victims, you’re coming for Rachel.”

“I’m tired of the hand-wringing ... it’s time for Virginia to end the death penalty,” he said.

In the House, Del. Jeff Campbell, R-Smyth, and Del. Carrie Coyner, R-Chesterfield, were the only two Republicans to join the majority. Del. Roxann Robinson, R-Chesterfield, who voted earlier in favor of abolition legislation, voted against it Monday.

Michael Stone, executive director of Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, said, “Today’s final vote by the General Assembly to abolish capital punishment is a landmark in the history of Virginia. It is a repudiation of the legacy of 1,390 executions carried out by the commonwealth since 1608.”

“This vote continues the national move away from the death penalty. When the Governor signs the bill into law, Virginia will become the 11th state to abolish the use of executions in the past 15 years and the 23rd state overall,” Stone said.

Rob Lee, executive director of the Virginia Capital Representation Resource Center and a lawyer for Porter and Juniper, said Monday that the two were aware of what was happening in the Virginia legislature, but they declined to comment.

“A direct line can be drawn from Virginia’s modern death penalty back to its history of racist lynchings,” Lee said. “By eliminating the death penalty, governmental, political and moral leaders have taken a long overdue action needed to make Virginia a fairer and more just Commonwealth.”


National
Cancer survivor to join billionaire on SpaceX flight

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — After beating bone cancer, Hayley Arceneaux figures rocketing into orbit on SpaceX’s first private flight should be a piece of cosmic cake.

St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital announced Monday that the 29-year-old physician assistant — a former patient hired last spring — will launch later this year alongside a billionaire who’s using his purchased spaceflight as a charitable fundraiser.

Arceneaux will become the youngest American in space — beating NASA record-holder Sally Ride by over two years — when she blasts off this fall with entrepreneur Jared Isaacman and two yet-to-be-chosen contest winners.

She’ll also be the first to launch with a prosthesis. When she was 10, she had surgery at St. Jude to replace her knee and get a titanium rod in her left thigh bone. She still limps and suffers occasional leg pain, but has been cleared for flight by SpaceX. She’ll serve as the crew’s medical officer.

“My battle with cancer really prepared me for space travel,” Arceneaux said. “It made me tough, and then also I think it really taught me to expect the unexpected and go along for the ride.”

She wants to show her young patients and other cancer survivors that “the sky is not even the limit anymore.”

“It’s going to mean so much to these kids to see a survivor in space,” she said.

Isaacman announced his space mission Feb. 1, pledging to raise $200 million for St. Jude, half of that his own contribution. As the flight’s self-appointed commander, he offered one of the four SpaceX Dragon capsule seats to St. Jude.

Without alerting the staff, St. Jude chose Arceneaux from among the “scores” of hospital and fundraising employees who had once been patients and could represent the next generation, said Rick Shadyac, president of St. Jude’s fundraising organization.

Arceneaux was at home in Memphis, Tennessee, when she got the “out of the blue” call in January asking if she’d represent St. Jude in space.

Her immediate response: “Yes! Yes! Please!” But first she wanted to run it past her mother in St. Francisville, Louisiana. (Her father died of kidney cancer in 2018.) Next she reached out to her brother and sister-in-law, both of them aerospace engineers in Huntsville, Alabama, who “reassured me how safe space travel is.”

A lifelong space fan who embraces adventure, Arceneaux insists those who know her won’t be surprised. She’s plunged on a bungee swing in New Zealand and ridden camels in Morocco. And she loves roller-coasters.

Isaacman, who flies fighter jets for a hobby, considers her a perfect fit.

“It’s not all supposed to be about getting people excited to be astronauts someday, which is certainly cool,” Isaacman, 38, said last week. “It’s also supposed to be about an inspiring message of what we can accomplish here on Earth.”

He has two more crew members to select, and he plans to reveal them in March.

One will be a sweepstakes winner; anyone donating to St. Jude this month is eligible. So far, more than $9 million has come in, according to Shadyac. The other seat will go to a business owner who uses Shift4Payments, Isaacman’s Allentown, Pennsylvania, credit card-processing company.

Liftoff is targeted around October at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, with the capsule orbiting Earth two to four days. He’s not divulging the cost.


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