The U.S. death toll from covid-19 topped 600,000 on Tuesday, even as the vaccination drive has brought down daily cases and fatalities and allowed the country to emerge from the gloom.
The number of lives lost, as recorded by Johns Hopkins University, is greater than the population of Baltimore or Milwaukee, Wis. It is about equal to the number of Americans who died of cancer in 2019. Worldwide, the covid-19 death toll stands at about 3.8 million.
The milestone came on the same day that California and New York lifted most of their remaining restrictions, joining other states in opening the way, step by step, for a return to normal for many Americans.
"Deep down, I want to rejoice," said Rita Torres, a retired university administrator in Oakland, Calif. But she plans to take it slow. "Because it's kind of like, is it too soon? Will we be sorry?"
With the arrival of vaccines in mid-December, covid-19 deaths per day in the U.S. have plummeted to an average of about 340 from a high of more than 3,400 in mid-January. Cases are running at about 14,000 per day, down from a quarter-million per day over the winter.
The first known deaths from the virus in the U.S. were in early February 2020. It took four months to reach the first 100,000 dead. In the winter, during the most lethal phase of the pandemic, it took just more than a month to go from 300,000 to 400,000 deaths.
With the crisis now easing, it took close to four months for the U.S. death toll to go from a half-million to 600,000.
But the real death tolls in the U.S. and around the world are thought to be significantly higher, with many cases overlooked or possibly concealed by some countries.
President Joe Biden acknowledged the approaching milestone Monday during his visit to Europe, saying that while new cases and deaths are dropping dramatically in the U.S., "there's still too many lives being lost," and "now is not the time to let our guard down."
More than 50% of Americans have had at least one dose of vaccine, and more than 40% are fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But demand for shots in the U.S. has dropped significantly, leaving many places with a surplus of doses and casting doubt on whether the country will meet Biden's target of having 70% of American adults at least partially vaccinated by July 4. The figure stands at just under 65%.
As of a week ago, the U.S. was averaging about 1 million injections per day, down from a high of about 3.3 million per day in mid-April, according to the CDC.
At nearly every turn in the outbreak, the virus has exploited and worsened inequalities in the United States. CDC figures, when adjusted for age and population, show that Black, Hispanic and American Indian people are two to three times more likely than white people to die of covid-19.
In addition, an Associated Press analysis found that Hispanics are dying at much younger ages than other groups. Hispanic people between 30 and 39 have died at five times the rate of white people in that age group.
Overall, Black and Hispanic Americans have less access to medical care and are in poorer health, with higher rates of conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure. They are also more likely to have jobs deemed essential; less able to work from home; and more likely to live in crowded, multigenerational households.
As the U.S. sees declines in new cases and deaths, California, the most populous state and the first to impose a coronavirus lockdown, is dropping state rules on social distancing and limits on capacity at restaurants, bars, supermarkets, gyms, stadiums and other places, ushering in what has been billed as its "Grand Reopening" just in time for summer.
Disneyland is throwing open its gates to all tourists after allowing only California residents. And fans will be able to sit elbow-to-elbow and cheer without masks at Dodgers and Giants baseball games.
"California has turned the page. Let us all celebrate this remarkable milestone," Gov. Gavin Newsom declared from an outdoor stage at Universal Studios Hollywood, where he hosted a game show-style selection of 10 residents to receive $1.5 million apiece, just for getting vaccinated. "Today is a day to reconnect with strangers, loved ones, family members. Give people hugs."
Masks are no longer mandated for vaccinated people in most settings, though businesses and counties can still require them and other restrictions.
The governor pointed to the more than 40 million doses of vaccine administered -- to more than 70% of the state's adults -- and the resulting plunge in cases as the reason for the reopening. California currently has one of the nation's lowest infection rates, below 1%.
Newsom has warned, however, that the virus is not gone completely and that enthusiasm for reopening should be tempered with vigilance.
More people tested positive for the virus in California, at 3.8 million and counting, and more people died, at more than 63,000, than anywhere else in the country, although the state had a lower per capita death rate than most others.
Newsom urged more people to get vaccinated, and he honored a few Californians in the grand finale of the nation's largest vaccination incentive program. The 10 winners of the $15 million jackpot Tuesday were the last selected in a $116 million covid-19 lottery.
Before announcing the winners, Newsom called up frontline ICU nurse Helen Cordova, who was the first in California to get the vaccine in mid-December.
"I am feeling so emotional, excited, hopeful," Cordova said. "To look back now, and see where we were, it's a little eerie but also encouraging and exciting to see how far we've come."
N.Y. ACHIEVES 70%
In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Tuesday that 70% of adults in the state had received at least one dose of vaccine, and he announced that the immediate easing of many of the restrictions would be celebrated with fireworks.
"What does 70% mean? It means that we can now return to life as we know it," he said.
He said the state is lifting rules that had limited the size of gatherings and required some types of businesses to follow cleaning protocols, take people's temperatures or screen them for covid-19 symptoms.
Movie theaters will no longer have to leave empty seats between patrons, restaurants will no longer be forced to sit parties at least 6 feet apart, and stores won't have to limit how many customers they admit. New York had previously allowed businesses to stop enforcing social distancing and mask rules for vaccinated patrons.
For the time being, though, New Yorkers will have to keep wearing masks in schools, subways, large sports arenas, homeless shelters, hospitals, nursing homes, jails and prisons. Unvaccinated New Yorkers will still be subject to a mask mandate while indoors in public places.
New York has essentially been at that 70% mark for days. It reached 69.5% of adults vaccinated as of Saturday and 69.9% as of Monday.
But Cuomo said the state would remember Tuesday as the day when New York "rose again."
VERMONT HITS 80%
In Vermont, Gov. Phil Scott announced Monday that more than 80% of eligible residents had received at least one vaccine dose, adding that it's the first state to reach that milestone.
Scott said he would immediately lift all remaining pandemic restrictions and that Vermont's state of emergency would expire this morning.
According to the state, 80.2% of Vermonters 12 and older and 81.8% of those 18 and older had received at least one dose.
"Our state has shown the world what's possible when you have a group of people with the right attitude following the data and trusting medical science," Scott said at a news conference.
Elsewhere, Massachusetts on Tuesday officially lifted a state of emergency that had been in effect for 462 days, though many restrictions had already been eased, including mask requirements and limits on gatherings. Republican lawmakers in Kansas decided to let a state of emergency expire Tuesday. And Maryland's governor announced that the emergency there will end July 1, with the state no longer requiring masks.
'A SUMMER OF FREEDOM'
As states drop their restrictions, Biden wants to imbue Independence Day with new meaning this year by encouraging nationwide celebrations to mark the country's effective return to normalcy.
The White House is expressing growing certainty that July Fourth will serve as a breakthrough moment in the nation's recovery, even though the U.S. is expected to fall short of Biden's vaccination goal.
The planned celebration will be the largest event of Biden's presidency and is designed to demonstrate the nation's victory over the virus. The U.S. is seeing its highest rate of air travel since the pandemic began, and schools, businesses and restaurants are rapidly reopening.
To celebrate the resumption of normal life, Biden is looking to celebrate the July Fourth holiday as a symbol of "a summer of freedom."
He plans to host first responders, essential workers and military service members and their families on the South Lawn of the White House for a cookout and to watch the fireworks over the National Mall. More than 1,000 guests are expected, officials said.
White House officials Tuesday did not say whether guests would be required to provide proof of vaccination or testing before attending the event, but one official said that protocol and more details would be released soon.
The National Park Service said visitors would be encouraged to attend the fireworks display on the National Mall and that all nearby monuments would be open. Last year, attendees were advised to stay socially distanced and to avoid traveling to the capital.
The White House is hoping to see similar Independence Day activities across the country, a year after the virus forced a mass cancellation of festivities.
"We welcome you to join us by hosting your own events to honor our freedom, salute those who have been serving on the frontlines, and celebrate our progress in fighting this pandemic," the White House wrote in an email to state and local officials Tuesday.
"America is headed into a summer dramatically different from last year," the administration said. "A summer of freedom. A summer of joy. A summer of reunions and celebrations."
The plan shows the shift in thinking since Biden cautiously held out hope three months ago that people might be able to hold small cookouts by July Fourth.
For most Americans, that reopening target was hit last month, by Memorial Day weekend, after the CDC relaxed mask-wearing guidance for fully vaccinated people and after state and local virus restrictions also eased.
Some 166.5 million adults have received at least one dose of a covid-19 vaccine, according to CDC data. To reach his goal, Biden would need to vaccinate about 14 million more people in less than three weeks.
"Regardless of where we are on July Fourth, we're not shutting down shop," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said last week. "On July 5, we're going to continue to press to vaccinate more people across the country."
Psaki added that the administration would be focusing heavily on people younger than 40, who have gotten vaccinations at lower rates than others. The White House has tried to entice younger Americans by partnering with ride-hailing services and dating apps that can offer free services to people who would like to receive vaccinations.
Information for this article was contributed by Janie Har, Michael Kunzelman, Zeke Miller, Jocelyn Gecker, Stefanie Dazio, John Antczak, Amy Taxin, Olga R. Rodriguez, Kathleen Ronayne and Marina Villeneuve of The Associated Press; by Katie Rogers of The New York Times; and by Caroline Anders of The Washington Post.