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More than half a million dead of COVID-19 in US

The U.S. has surpassed 500,000 deaths from the novel coronavirus, even as case numbers trend downward and vaccination efforts proceed. 

The U.S. reached the half-million death milestone on Monday, the highest of any country, a little more than a year after the first American is believed to have died from the virus in Santa Clara County, Calif.  

The true toll of the coronavirus pandemic, however, is likely far higher, as federal figures maintained by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show excess mortality well above what might be otherwise assumed for a typical year. 

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“It's something that is stunning when you look at the numbers, almost unbelievable, but it's true," Fauci said Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press" the day before the U.S. officially crossed the 500,000 threshold. "This is a devastating pandemic, and it's historic. People will be talking about this decades and decades and decades from now.”

The burden caused by the coronavirus has proven deadlier than what even some of the most pessimistic estimates suggested. COVID-19 has killed nearly 50 percent more people in the United States than the number of people who died from influenza over the entirety of the past decade — a number roughly equal to the population of Atlanta or Kansas City, Mo.

The news comes as other trends in the U.S. are more hopeful, including cases dropping over 40 percent in the past two weeks and more than 70 percent since January, according to The New York Times. Daily positive tests are at their lowest rate since late October. Death rates are also beginning to slow.

The nation has made tremendous progress in recent weeks in curbing a winter tsunami of new cases, though an average of 71,000 Americans still tested positive for the virus every day last week, a rate still well above the summer and spring peaks. In the last week, an average of 1,850 people died of the virus every day.

Hospitalizations have fallen over 50 percent since January, with a total of 62,000 reported around the country as of Thursday, according to the Times.

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A stunning breakthrough in developing two vaccines that have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration, and several more that will soon seek authorization for emergency use, has contributed in part to the decline in cases, though health experts cautioned that the country — and the world — still has a long way to go before the virus will come under control.

“We had a big peak, and we're starting to come down. Certainly, the number of people that have been infected are contributing to that, also some contribution with vaccines. Not a lot, I don't think we vaccinated enough people yet to get the herd immunity. I think you're seeing the natural peaking and coming down,” Fauci said on "Meet the Press."

But extreme weather in some states, particularly Texas, may be obscuring the full picture. Several Lone Star State testing and vaccination sites were forced to close and delay reporting amid winter storms, and Travis County, which includes Austin, has yet to report post-Friday numbers.

At the same time, more states are relaxing coronavirus restrictions, lifting bans on indoor activities like dining and gyms and raising capacity at sporting events and public gatherings. Schools are reopening in many parts of the country, but health experts continue to urge people to take precautions to distance and to wear masks.

“The baseline of daily infections is still very, very high. It’s not the 300 to 400,000 that we had some time ago, but we want to get that baseline really, really, really low before we start thinking that we’re out of the woods,” Fauci said.

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The progress comes as numerous more infectious variants of the virus, including strains believed to have originated in England and South Africa, have been recorded in the U.S..

Nationwide, about 12 percent of Americans have received at least their first dose of the vaccine, with 5 percent receiving both.

The virus has infected more than 111 million people and claimed almost 2.5 million lives across the globe, according to data maintained by Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Systems Science and Engineering.