Traci Sikes’s older sister Debbie had survived several health setbacks in life – a heart attack, a cancer diagnosis, and a couple of botched surgeries for a bad back. But by early 2023, the 68-year-old from Brownwood, Tex., was in remission from lymphoma, feeling stronger, and celebrating a birthday for one of her 11 beloved grandchildren.
Then Debbie caught COVID-19. Less than 2 months later, in March, she died of severe lung damage caused by the coronavirus.
Traci was able to make the trip from her home in Washington state to Texas to be with Debbie before she died. She was grateful that she arrived while her sister was still lucid and to hear her sister’s last word – “love” – spoken to one of her grandchildren before she took her final breath.
“My sister was wonderful,” Sikes said. “And she shouldn’t be gone.”
Just 6 months after President Joe Biden declared last fall that “the pandemic is over,” Just as both the World Health Organization and U.S. government recently ended the 3-year-old coronavirus public health emergency, COVID is still killing more than 100 people every day in the U.S., according to the CDC, and amid widespread efforts to move on and drop protective measures, the country’s most vulnerable people are still at significant risk.
The prevailing attitude that we need to learn to live with the current level of risk feels like a “slap in the face,” for COVID grievers who have already paid the price,” said Sabila Khan, who cofounded a Facebook group for COVID loss support, which now has more than 14,000 members.
It also minimizes the continuing loss of life and that so many people are still dying traumatic and unnecessary deaths, she said.
“It feels like it’s been brushed aside,” she said. “Like, ‘It’s business as usual. It’s over. Take off your mask.’ My family and I are still masked, and we’re probably the only ones masked in any given room.”
The abandoning of protective measures also fails to recognize the ongoing and catastrophic risks of long COVID and the experiences of an estimated 26 million people in the U.S. living with long COVID.
“It’s been drummed into us that death is the only serious outcome [of the virus] and we still haven’t made enough space for the idea that long COVID is a very serious outcome,” said David Putrino, PhD, director of rehabilitation innovation for the Mount Sinai Health System in New York, who has helped care for thousands of patients with long COVID.
Historic drop in life expectancy
More than 1.1 million Americans have died from COVID over the past 3 years, and experts say the official numbers are likely underestimated because of errors in death certificate reporting. Although deaths have waned from earlier in the pandemic, the disease has become the fourth leading cause of death in the United States after heart disease, cancer, and “unintentional injury” such as drug overdoses.
What makes these deaths all the more tragic is that COVID is a preventable disease, said Carla Sevin, MD, a critical care doctor and director of the Pulmonary Patient Care Center at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn. Masking, available vaccines, and social distancing have all been shown to significantly lower the risk of spreading and catching the virus. New drugs have also made it possible for infected people to survive COVID.
“It’s possible to not spread COVID,” she said. “It’s possible to protect yourself against COVID. It’s possible to treat COVID. And we’re doing all of those things imperfectly.”
By the end of 2021, Americans overall were dying 3 years sooner, on average, than they were before the pandemic, with life expectancy dropping from 79 years to 76 years, the largest decline in a century.
Globally, the COVID death toll is nearing 7 million. Across all ages, on average, each person who died passed away 10 years younger than they otherwise would have. That’s tens of millions of years wiped away.
As U.S. surgeon and health researcher Atul Gawande, MD, put it in a New York Times essay about the pandemic response: “Human development has been pushed into reverse.”