The total number of known coronavirus cases in the United States surpassed 50 million on Monday, according to a New York Times database.
Fifty million can be a difficult number to grasp. It is more than the combined populations of Georgia, Michigan, North Carolina and Ohio. More than the entire population of Spain. Nearly 18 times the number of dollars an American college graduate can expect to earn in a lifetime.
And it is almost certainly a substantial undercount of cases, since many infected people have no symptoms or mistake them for those of another illness, and not everyone gets tested — to say nothing of the huge shortage of available tests in the early weeks of the pandemic.
Daily reports of new cases, which fell steadily in the early autumn, have been rising sharply in the last few weeks as the prevalent Delta variant continues to spread, especially in the Midwest, Southwest and New England. And much remains unknown about the worrisome new Omicron variant.
Hospitalizations and deaths have started to rise as well, and experts say the holidays and winter weather will probably make matters worse. Though the increases and Omicron may have helped to prompt more vaccinations, more than one-quarter of the population still has not received even one dose, and about 61 percent are fully vaccinated.
Still, the official tally of 50 million cases and counting is one more painful marker in two years that have been riddled with them — one more occasion to take stock of what has been lost.
More than 796,000 people have died in the United States because of the virus — a toll unfathomable to most Americans when the pandemic began. The first 100,000 deaths hit like a gut punch. But as successive round-number milestones were passed, they attracted less and less notice.
Then there are the untold ranks of the walking wounded: loved ones of the dead, of course, but also people coping with long-haul symptoms. Many viral illnesses are capable of causing chronic disability in a small percentage of patients, but when the denominator is 50 million, even a small percentage is a lot of people. Many of them have struggled to find treatment in, or even to be believed by, a health care system that has sometimes buckled under the weight of the acutely ill.
There are the mental health struggles wrought by fear and isolation. There is the economy, which is better than it was in the worst depths of the pandemic, but not yet near where it was before March 2020.
And there are the changes to the very fabric of how we live our lives: how we work and where, and even whether we are employed at all. How our children learn, and who cares for them.
Eventually, the experts say, the pandemic will abate, as previous pandemics have done. Americans will someday forget numbers like 50 million. But their ripples will be everywhere.