CHICAGO — A nation numbed by misery and loss is confronting a number that still has the power to shock: 500,000.
Roughly one year since the first known death by the coronavirus in the United States, an unfathomable toll is nearing — the loss of a half-million people.
No other country has counted so many deaths in the pandemic. More Americans have perished from COVID-19 than on the battlefields of World War I, World War II and the Vietnam War combined.
The milestone comes at a hopeful moment: New virus cases are down sharply, deaths are slowing, and vaccines are steadily being administered.
But there is concern about emerging variants of the virus, and it may be months before the pandemic is contained.
Each death has left untold numbers of mourners, a ripple effect of loss that has swept over towns and cities. Each death has left an empty space in communities across America: a bar stool where a regular used to sit, one side of a bed unslept in, a home kitchen without its cook.
The living find themselves amid vacant places once occupied by their spouses, parents, neighbors and friends — the nearly 500,000 coronavirus dead.
In Chicago, the Rev. Ezra Jones stands at his pulpit on Sundays, letting his eyes wander to the back row. That spot belonged to Moses Jones, his uncle, who liked to drive to church in his green Chevy Malibu, arrive early and chat everybody up before settling in to his seat by the door. He died of the coronavirus in April.
“I can still see him there,” said Jones, the pastor. “It never goes away.”
There is a street corner in Plano, Texas, that was occupied by Bob Manus, a veteran crossing guard who shepherded children to school for 16 years, until he fell ill in December.
In the Twin Cities of Minnesota, LiHong Burdick, 72, another victim of the coronavirus, is missing from the groups she cherished: one for playing bridge, another for mahjong and another for polishing her English.
At her empty town house, the holiday decorations are still up. There are cards lined up on the mantel.
“You walk in, and it smells like her,” said her son, Keith Bartram. “Seeing the chair she would sit in, the random things around the house, it’s definitely very surreal. I went over there yesterday and had a little bit of a breakdown. It’s hard to be in there when it looks like she should be there, but she’s not.”
The virus has reached every corner of America, devastating dense cities and rural counties alike. By now, about 1 in 670 Americans has died of it.
In New York City, more than 28,000 people have died of the virus — or 1 in 295 people. In Los Angeles County, which has lost nearly 20,000 people to COVID-19, about 1 in 500 people has died of the virus. In Lamb County, Texas, where 13,000 people live scattered on a sprawling expanse of 1,000 square miles, 1 in 163 people has died of the virus.
Across America, the holes in communities, punctured by sudden death, have remained.
In Anaheim, California, Monica Alvarez looks at the kitchen in the house she shared with her parents and thinks of her father, Jose Roberto Alvarez.
Jose Alvarez, 67, a maintenance supervisor, worked the overnight shift until he died from the virus in July. Before he got sick, he would come home from his usual workday and prepare an early-morning meal. Monica Alvarez, beginning her workday as an accountant from her computer in the nearby dining room, would chat with him while he scrambled a plate of eggs.
“With his passing, we’ve rearranged some rooms in the house,” she said. “I don’t work in the dining room anymore. I’m glad for that. I’m sad, but I’m glad. It’s a reminder, being there.”
The physical emptiness is next to Andrea Mulcahy on the couch in her house in Florida, where her husband, Tim, who worked at a cellular telephone company, loved to sit.
“We would hold hands, or sometimes I would put my hand on his leg,” Mulcahy said. Her husband, who believed that he contracted the virus from a co-worker, died in July at the age of 52.