In a stunning moment, the United States has passed 500,000 deaths from COVID-19 — just a year after the virus made its way into the U.S — but health experts are bullish the vaccine will keep that number from doubling.

Texas makes up 8.2 percent of that death toll as of Feb. 19, with 41,002 confirmed deaths. Worldwide, more than 2.4 million people have died of complications from the virus, according to Johns Hopkins University researchers. The U.S. makes up a little more than 20 percent of global deaths.

“There’s some numbness around the true, staggering toll this represents,” said Josh Michaud, associate director for global health policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation, a D.C.-based think tank.

About 83 million people in the U.S. have contracted COVID-19, according to new estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And the death toll is comparable to the population of Atlanta, Ga. or Sacramento, Calif.

By the numbers, as of Feb. 22

2.4 million deaths worldwide

500,071 deaths in the U.S.

41,002 deaths in Texas

12.7 percent of tests are positive in Texas

2.5 million confirmed COVID-19 cases in Texas

4.3 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines given to Texans

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Michnaud thinks the U.S. could have taken several steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Public health officials, politicians and medical experts should have coordinated a more cohesive response, he said. There should have been financial and emotional support for people to isolate and recover after exposure to the virus. Local and federal government could have invested more money into contact tracing. And in his opinion, people desperate to reopen businesses put short-term economic recovery at conflict with public health measures.

Even if only a small percentage of people who have contracted the virus have died, that’s still too many to lose, Michnaud said.

But the losses — teachers, nurses, custodial staff, parents, children — aren’t as easy to quantify as state tallies of the dead and the recovered. Texas has lost tens of thousands of people who contributed to their communities, and the toll it takes to grieve them could result in years of collective trauma.

In Houston, the people lost to the coronavirus include a doctor who treated patients for months before falling ill himself, a prominent preacher and activist who advocated for LGBTQ Christians and communities of color and a retired bailiff who spent 34 years with the Harris County Sheriff’s Office.

Many people relaxed over the summer as cases ebbed and governments relaxed some stringent public health measures, leading to the most recent surge of COVID-19, which started in September, said Dr. James McDeavitt, senior vice president and dean of clinical affairs at Baylor College of Medicine.

“People are asking questions about how much of this was preventable,” McDeavitt said. “Some of this was preventable if we’d acted more in unison than we did.”

Since the U.S. reached 100,000 deaths at the end of May, infection rates have ridden a roller coaster as states reopened businesses such as restaurants and theme parks, Americans gathered for holidays, and — finally — two vaccines were approved for emergency use.

While the new variants of of SARS-CoV-2 could pose a problem, experts said vaccination campaigns will greatly slow hospitalization and death rates.

“I think the worst is behind us,” Michnaud said.

President Joe Biden plans to mark the 500,000th COVID-19 death Monday night with a candlelighting ceremony at the White House.

“It’s slowing now, and hopefully that continues so we don’t have another 500,000,” McDeavitt said.

gwendolyn.wu@chron.com

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