Nearly 37,000 Americans died with COVID-19 in November, from the dark early days of the pandemic, plunging families into mourning, filling newspaper memorial pages and testing the capacity of morgues, funeral homes and hospitals.
Between resuscitation, states began reopening field hospitals to handle the influx of patients pushing health care systems – and their workers – to the breaking point. Hospitals are bringing in mobile morgues. And funerals are being streamed live or conducted as drive-by affairs.
After ignoring requests from many Americans to stay home for Thanksgiving and avoid people who do not live with them, health officials fear the crisis will get worse in the coming weeks.
“I have no doubt we are going to see the number of deaths … and this is a terrible and tragic place,” said Josh Michad, associate director of global health policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation. “It’s going to be a very dark couple weeks.”
According to figures compiled by Johns Hopkins University, the number recorded in November was much lower than the 60,699 recorded in April, but in May it was as high as 42,000. The death toll dropped to just 20,000 in June after states closed several businesses and ordered people to stay home.
Michad said the rapidly deteriorating situation was particularly depressing because vaccine distribution would begin within weeks.
The Mobile Morge, which killed 160 people in 2011 when a tornado broke through Joplin near Mercy Hospital Springfield in Missouri, is back in use. It had two bodies on Sunday until the funeral home workers arrived.
At Bellefontaine Cemetery in St. Louis, burials have increased by a third this year compared to last year, and while cremations are sitting in storage of about 20 people, their families are waiting for a safe time to conduct memorial services. Among the dead were spouses in their 80s who succumbed to COVID-19 over a five-day period.
“You want to be safe at the grave, so you don’t have to do another grave service,” said Richard Lay, vice president of Bellefontaine Cemetery, for another family member.
Star Tribune in Minneapolis-St. Paul saw a 40% increase in the number of pages dedicated to the memorial paid in November, mostly due to COVID-19, a spokesman said. As of November 29, the newspaper had 11 pages of memoirs, compared to half the number of ordinary Sundays.
In Worcester, Massachusetts, the National Guard was loaded with trucks with beds, medical supplies, tables and other items needed to maintain a 250-bed field hospital, while state medical centers became overcrowded.
Rhode Island opened two field hospitals with over 900 beds. State regular hospitals reached their coronavirus capacity on Monday. New York City, the epicenter of the U.S. outbreak earlier this year, reopened a field hospital on Staten Island last week. Wisconsin has a field hospital in the West Allies, ready to take on overflow patients. A Nevada hospital has added hospital bed capacity in an adjoining parking garage.
“Hospitals across the country are concerned about their efficiency on a daily basis … and we really are not even in the winter and we have not seen the impact of Thanksgiving travel and Thanksgiving meetings,” said Dr. Amesh Adalza, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.
The number of hospital beds is only a concern. As the virus grows almost everywhere at once, many hospitals are scrambling to find enough staff to look after patients, Adalza said.
“You can’t say doctors and nurses come from other states because those other states are also dealing with COVID patients,” he said.
The virus has been blamed for more than 268,000 deaths and more than 13.5 million infections in the United States. As of Monday, 96,000 people were hospitalized with the virus in the United States. The U.S. is seeing an average of more than 160,000 new cases a day and nearly 1,470 deaths – the equivalent of what the country testified in mid-May.
State and local officials are also responding with shutdowns, curfews, quarantine and mask orders.
California officials say the hospital is likely to triple by Christmas and are considering stay-home orders for areas with the highest number of cases. Los Angeles County has already told its 10 million residents to stay home.
In Oklahoma, Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt declared Thursday a day of prayer and fasting because the number of coronavirus infections confirmed by the state has reached 200,000. State health officials said a maximum of 1,700 people were hospitalized Tuesday in a single day.
Stitt, who tested positive for the virus in July, donated plasma to help other patients recover and said he would do it again.
“I believe we must continue to ask God to heal the sick, to comfort the afflicted, and to give new strength and wisdom to all who are dealing with the effects of COVID-19,” he said in a statement.
Webber reported from Fenton, Michigan, and Mission, Kansas from Hollingsworth. Associated Press Authors Alan Clendening in Phoenix; David Caruso and Jeff Macmillan in New York City; And Juliet Williams of San Francisco contributed to the story.