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After 1 million deaths, covid leaves millions more forever changed

(Hokyoung Kim for The Washington Post)
(Hokyoung Kim for The Washington Post)

One million dead: The U.S. death toll from the covid-19 pandemic will hit that unfathomable number this week, and yet there is a far larger number that reflects the true impact this virus has had on Americans over the past two years. That number is 9 million — the number of Americans who have lost spouses, parents, grandparents, siblings and children to covid.

Sociologists at Penn State and the University of Southern California came up with a “bereavement multiplier,” a way to calculate how many close relatives each covid death leaves behind and bereft. The answer, on average, is nine — not including extended family or close friends, longtime co-workers or next-door neighbors, many of whom, the study said, are deeply affected, too.

Covid quickly became the third-biggest killer of Americans, behind only heart disease and cancer, according to federal statistics for 2020. One million is how many people live in San Jose, Calif., or Austin, Tex., or in Montgomery County, Md., or Westchester County, N.Y. It’s more people than live in the six smallest states or D.C., about as many as live in Delaware or Rhode Island.

In all likelihood, the death toll is significantly higher than the official 1 million, the National Center for Health Statistics reports, noting that some Americans whose death certificates list heart attacks or hypertensive disease likely had undiagnosed coronavirus infections.

Americans have died of covid at a higher rate than in any other major industrialized country, and life expectancy for Americans has fallen over the past two years at the sharpest rate since the double whammy of World War I and the 1918 flu pandemic.

The 1 million dead may seem like a random group, yet they fall into clear patterns: Those killed by covid were mostly old; disproportionately low income, Black or Hispanic; and overwhelmingly unvaccinated. People who did not get the shot were 53.2 times more likely to die than fully vaccinated and boosted people.

Yet in those concentric circles of grief around the 1 million are people of every age, every income level and every background, vaccinated and not. In the ripples that bubble outward from each death, the tensions and divisions of American society are at play. Covid honors no walls.

As the country marks the million milestone, these are stories of five who died — and the many others who carry on with a gaping hole in their lives.

Kevin and Misty Mitchem’s four kids — 12-year-old twins Taylor and Aidan; Leah, 15; and Riley, 17 — were at their house in Stafford County, Va., one day last September when their aunt, Janine Sutter, drove up from South Carolina to fetch them and take them to their new home — hers.

The kids’ mother had gone into the hospital with covid and was quickly put on a ventilator. Now their father, who contracted covid first but seemed to be doing fairly well with it, was in a different hospital. Sutter, Misty’s older sister, made a beeline for Virginia.

She packed the kids’ bags and drove four children, two cats and a dog 450 miles southwest to her place. What she didn’t tell them immediately was that she’d already gotten word as she drove north: Misty, who was diabetic, had died on Sept. 24, just four days after she entered the hospital, just two days after she was put on a ventilator. She was 46 years old.

Kevin, a healthy 48-year-old equipment operator, now with a hacking covid cough, would fight on, but 14 days after Misty died, on Oct. 8, he, too, would succumb. He also left behind a 22-year-old daughter from an earlier relationship.

Sutter waited until they were settled into what would become the children’s new home before she told them about their mother.

Six months later, the shock still…

Read More:After 1 million deaths, covid leaves millions more forever changed

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