CHICAGO (NewsNation Now) — Just when the U.S. appears on the verge of rolling out a COVID-19 vaccine, the numbers have become gloomier than ever: Over 3,000 American deaths in a single day, more than on D-Day or 9/11. One million new cases in the span of five days.
The U.S. recorded 3,124 deaths Wednesday, the highest one-day total yet, according to data complied by Johns Hopkins University. Up until last week, the peak was 2,603 deaths on April 15, when New York City was the epicenter of the nation’s outbreak. The latest number is subject to revision up or down.
Wednesday’s toll eclipsed American deaths on the opening day of the Normandy invasion during World War II: 2,500, out of some 4,400 Allied dead. And it topped the toll on Sept. 11, 2001: 2,977. It is greater than the 2,403 killed in the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. All traumatic events that reshaped the United States for years.
“Probably for the next 60 to 90 days, we’re going to have more deaths per day than we had on 9/11 or we had at Pearl Harbor,” Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told the Council on Foreign Relations on Thursday.
“The reality is the vaccine approval this week is not going to really impact that, I think, to any degree for the next 60 days,” Redfield said.
The crisis across the country is pushing medical centers to the breaking point and leaving staff members and public health officials burned out and plagued by tears and nightmares.
All told, the crisis has left more than 290,000 people dead nationwide, with more than 15.5 million confirmed infections, according to Johns Hopkins.
New cases per day are running at all-time highs of over 209,000 on average. And the number of people in the hospital with COVID-19 is setting records nearly every day. As of Thursday, more than 107,000 people were hospitalized because of the virus according to data complied by the COVID Tracking Project.
A U.S. government advisory panel on Thursday endorsed widespread use of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine to help conquer the outbreak. Depending on how fast the FDA signs off on the panel’s recommendation, shots could begin within days, inaugurating the biggest vaccination campaign in U.S. history.
Healthcare workers, first responders and nursing home residents are expected to receive the first doses, but a wider rollout faces significant logistical challenges to meet President-elect Joe Biden’s goal of inoculating 100 million people within 100 days of his inauguration on Jan. 20.
“It’s not going to be like a light switch on and off,” said Dr. Mark Mulligan, director of the NYU Langone Health Vaccine Center and a lead investigator for the Pfizer trials. “It’s going to be more like a dimmer switch.”
In St. Louis, respiratory therapist Joe Kowalczyk said he has seen entire floors of his hospital fill up with COVID-19 patients, some of them two to a room. He said the supply of ventilators is dwindling, and the inventory is so thin that colleagues on one shift had to ventilate one patient by using a BiPAP machine, similar to the devices used to treat sleep apnea.
When he goes home to sleep during the day at the end of his grueling overnight shifts, he sometimes has nightmares.
“I would be sleeping and I would be working in a unit and things would go completely wrong and I would shock myself awake. They would be very visceral and very vivid,” he said. “It would just really spook me.”
In South Dakota, Dr. Clay Smith has treated hundreds of COVID-19 patients while working at Monument Health Spearfish Hospital and at Sheridan Memorial Hospital in neighboring Wyoming.
He said patients are becoming stranded in the emergency room for hours while they await beds on the main floor or transfers to larger hospitals. And those transfers are becoming more challenging, with some patients sent as far away as Denver, 400 miles from the two hospitals.
“That is a huge burden for families and EMS systems as well when you take an ambulance and send it 400 miles one way, that ambulance is out of the community for essentially a whole day,” he said.
Smith added that some patients have gone from thinking “I thought this was a hoax” to “Wow, this is real and I feel terrible.” But he also has seen people with COVID-19 who “continue to be disbelievers. It is hard to see that.”
“At the end of the day the virus doesn’t care whether you believe in it or not,” he said.
In California, more counties went under a new stay-at-home order Friday as the virus continued to overwhelm the state’s hospitals. The thirteen counties in Northern California restrictions include closing outdoor dining along with hair and nail salons.
As of Thursday night, the 11-county Southern California region only had 7.7% of its ICU bed available, the California Department of Public Health reported.
“Over 8,000 people who were beloved members of their families are not coming back,” Los Angeles County health director Barbara Ferrer said in a choked voice. She called the deaths “an incalculable loss to their friends and their family and the community.”’
In Idaho, Gov. Brad Little didn’t order a statewide mask mandate or enact additional restrictions despite the public health agency announcing that COVID-19 is now the leading cause of death in the state. But the Republican governor warned that if hospitals continue to fill and the state has to initiate “crisis standards of care” — when life-saving treatment would be reserved for patients most likely to survive — car crash victims could be treated in hospital conference rooms and diabetics with infections could be denied beds.
Little was among the first governors to publicly wear a mask in the spring and has encouraged others to do so, but anti-mask sentiment is intense in the conservative state.
In New York City, which was ravaged by the virus in the spring, one doctor sounded a note of relative optimism, saying that at least physicians are more capable of managing the virus now.
“Early in the spring we did not know enough,” said Dr. Jolion McGreevy, who directs Mount Sinai Hospital’s emergency department. “We really are operating from a place of knowledge, now — which is a big leap from where we were in the spring.”
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.