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Researcher: Coronavirus death toll likely affecting nearly 2 million US family members

Flags near the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C., honoring the more than 200,000 lives lost so far in the coronavirus pandemic.ANNA MONEYMAKER/NYT

The US death toll from the coronavirus, which has climbed over 200,000, is having a ripple effect of grief that is likely affecting nearly 2 million family members left behind, a researcher says.

“Because many individuals who have died from COVID-19 were simultaneously a spouse, sibling, and child, and also a parent to multiple children or a grandparent to even more grandchildren, the collective toll of this mortality crisis is far greater when we start to think about all of the individuals bereaved by each death,” said Emily Smith-Greenaway, associate professor of sociology and spatial sciences at the University of Southern California.

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“In just six months, nearly two million Americans have experienced an irreplaceable loss that not only leaves them grieving and possibly traumatized, but may come with long-lasting health and economic consequences for themselves and others in their family,” she said Tuesday in an e-mail.

Smith-Greenaway was co-author of a study published in July in the journal PNAS that estimated how many people will experience the death of a close relative (defined as a grandparent, parent, sibling, spouse, or child) for each COVID-19 death. The number they arrived at, after looking at kinship networks in the United States using a type of demographic modeling called “microsimulation,” was nine, which would put the number of those now affected at more than 1.8 million.

The study suggested that the “bereavement multiplier” researchers had developed could be “a useful indicator for tracking COVID-19′s multiplicative impact as it reverberates across American families and [it] can be tailored to other causes of death.”

The number of people affected would be even larger if other relatives were included, not to mention friends, co-workers, and neighbors, the study said.

The US. death toll from the coronavirus reached 200,000 Tuesday, by far the highest in the world.

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The number of dead is equivalent to a 9/11 attack every day for 67 days. It is roughly equal to the population of Salt Lake City or Huntsville, Alabama. The real toll is thought to be significantly higher than 200,000, in part because many COVID-19 deaths were probably ascribed to other causes, especially early on, before widespread testing.

And the pandemic is not stopping. Deaths are running at close to 770 a day on average, while a widely cited model from the University of Washington predicts the US toll will double to 400,000 by the end of the year as schools and colleges reopen and cold weather sets in. A vaccine is unlikely to become widely available until sometime in 2021.

“The extent to which this crisis has affected American families is truly difficult to fathom. These are holes in families that can never be filled," Smith-Greenaway said.

She said it was “particularly concerning is that we see such an uneven burden of COVID-19 mortality with a disproportionate number in the Black community. It’s important that we pay attention to the disparities not just as the result of inequality, but also a possible precursor to future disadvantage for the many Black families left grieving the loss of a loved one.”

Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.


Martin Finucane can be reached at martin.finucane@globe.com.