Timeline: How the US reached 500,000 COVID-19 deaths

A look at the past 12 months and how coronavirus came to exact such a devastating toll on the United States.

US President Joe Biden, his wife Jill Biden, US Vice President Kamala Harris and Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff mark a moment of silence to commemorate the grim milestone [Jonathan Ernst/Reuters]

Unfathomable one year ago, the United States has passed the grim mark of 500,000 deaths from COVID-19.

On Monday, President Joe Biden led Americans in observing a moment of silence to commemorate the grisly milestone, urging Americans to set aside partisan differences and fight the pandemic together.

Here is a look back over the past 12 months and how the US reached such a devastating death toll.

Early cases

On January 21, 2020, the US confirmed its first case of coronavirus.

The case was a citizen who returned from a trip to the Wuhan area in China. The man, in his 30s, was reported in good condition.

Former President Donald Trump described the presence of the virus as “just one person coming in from China” and said his administration had the new disease “totally under control”.

The first US death was announced on February 29 in Seattle. It subsequently emerged two other patients had died in California earlier that month.

Trump told reporters the deceased person was a “medically high-risk” woman in her late 50s – a health official in Washington state later said it was a man.

The outbreak spread rapidly across the country, forcing state governors and local authorities to impose lockdowns. It ravaged New York state early on and spread quickly nationwide.

By mid-March, the death toll had surpassed 100 with cases confirmed in every state. The US came to a standstill with schools closed and links to the rest of the world drastically reduced.

The economy soon struggled. On March 23, Trump said the country could not afford to continue the lockdowns.

“America will again and soon be open for business,” Trump said. “Very soon. A lot sooner than three or four months that somebody was suggesting. Lot sooner. We cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself.”

Trump left the management of fighting the pandemic to individual states.

On April 6, the US reported the third-highest number of reported deaths from the virus in the world, with 10,000 dead.

A mounting toll

On May 27, the US recorded 100,000 coronavirus deaths, barely a month after passing the 50,000-dead milestone.

Trump blamed China for the spread of the virus, saying Beijing could have stopped the disease before it swept the globe. He threatened to conduct “serious investigations” into China’s handling of the pandemic.

Trump’s conflicting messages

Amid the soaring toll, the US president gave confusing and conflicting advice.

In early April, health authorities recommended masks be worn. Trump undercut the message, insisting he himself would not wear one.

The US became the global epicentre of the pandemic with more than 277,000 confirmed cases.

On August 13, the former president changed his approach and endorsed masks in a confusing remark.

“My administration has a different approach. We have urged Americans to wear masks, and I emphasised this is a patriotic thing to do. Maybe they’re great, and maybe they’re just not so good,” he said.

By the end of the month, the total number of coronavirus cases surged past the six-million mark, with states including Iowa, Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota reporting daily records. More than 183,000 people died from the disease.

On September 22, the US passed 200,000 deaths.

On October 2, Trump’s staff said he and his wife Melania had contracted the virus. After four days of emergency treatment, Trump left the hospital on October 5.

By November 27, the number of COVID-19 patients being treated in hospitals across the US reached 90,000.

The rate of hospitalisations was at the highest since the pandemic began, pushing some medical facilities beyond their capacity and drawing alarm from public health experts and state officials.


On December 14, the first American received a coronavirus vaccination.

On December 21, then-president-elect Joe Biden got his first vaccine dose on live television.

New administration

Biden’s presidential campaign centred largely on taking a new approach to tackle the pandemic.

Upon assuming office on January 20, Biden set a goal of administering one million shots a day for a total of 100 million in the first 100 days of his presidency.

The current average is 1.7 million vaccinations a day.

Biden on January 22 warned that “well over 600,000” people in the US could die from the virus.

About 19 percent of total global coronavirus deaths have occurred in the US, an outsize figure given that it accounts for just 4 percent of the world’s population.

On February 22, Johns Hopkins University announced the grim milestone of 500,000 US deaths – more than World Wars I and II and the Vietnam War combined. It is the highest death toll by far in any country in the world.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies