Editorial: With 500K deaths, we are anything but exceptional

America has now crossed into what this time last year would have seemed simply unimaginable: more than 500,000 deaths from COVID-19 in 12 months. There have been more than 3,000 deaths in Suffolk County during this same time.

The half-million figure is more than the number of Americans who were killed in World War I, World War II and the Vietnam War — combined.

It is a massive national catastrophe. Think of the entire population within the Atlanta, Ga., city limits dying. Or the population of Fresno, Calif. It sounds like the plot of a horror movie that you get up and walk out of halfway through because the plot is too unbelievable.

But the truth is this: The wealthiest country on the planet — the country that just last week expertly landed a picture-taking craft on the surface of Mars — has the most COVID-19 deaths, and a half-million heartbreaking stories of lost loved ones. 

And, beyond the emotional scars, there is the question that one day we will have to answer as a country, perhaps with a 9/11-style commission: Did this have to happen? Could the death toll have been far, far lower? What went wrong?

Dr. Anthony Fauci, beloved by many and smeared by those who put their faith in politics and politicians over science and medicine, said this week that 500,000 should not have died. That is quite an indictment of American leadership over the previous 12 months.

He pointed out that this happened in the world’s richest and most sophisticated country — perhaps the country best equipped to respond quickly and with the smartest measures. But that’s not what happened. 

Dr. Fauci attributed the total to the country’s very poor handling of the crisis once it began to unfold last winter. “This is the worst thing that’s happened to this country, with regard to health of the nation, in over 100 years,” he said.

Here on the North Fork, residents continue to spend hours on the phone or online trying in vain to find somewhere to get the vaccine. One Cut-ch-ogue resident last week planned to drive to the Javits Center in New York City to be inoculated. Two hours in, two hours out. Nothing available in Riverhead or Southold.

Yes, there is a vaccine shortage, but the system of calling an 800 number or going on various websites — for the state health department, the county health department, Walgreens, CVS — has flustered so many residents that some have thrown up their hands and given up trying. 

Others say they dial the state’s toll-free number multiple times during the day hoping to get an appointment. If they get through, they are told that no appointments are available unless someone who has one cancels, or that there might be an opening months from now.

Southold Supervisor Scott Russell has offered town-owned sites as vaccination centers, but so far that has not materialized due to the vaccine shortage. 

So we muddle through, reading with horror that so many have died and that COVID-19 deaths in New York nursing homes were nearly twice what Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration had previously acknowledged.

As a state, we need to get to the bottom of that, too, and hold those responsible accountable.

American exceptionalism is on full display — on the surface of Mars. It is not evident in this country’s remarkably incompetent handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the months ahead, our nation’s exceptionalism needs to make a vigorous and lasting return.