MISSION, Kansas (AP) — Just when the US appears on the verge of rolling out a COVID-19 vaccine, the numbers have become gloomier than ever: Over 3,000 American deaths in a single day, more than on D-Day or 9/11. One million new cases in the span of five days. More than 106,000 people in the hospital.

The crisis across the country is pushing medical centres to the breaking point and leaving staff members and public health officials burned out and plagued by tears and nightmares.

All told, the crisis has left more than 290,000 people dead in the US, with more than 15 million confirmed infections.

The US recorded 3,124 deaths Wednesday, the highest one-day total yet, according to Johns Hopkins University. Up until last week, the peak was 2,603 deaths on April 15, when New York City was the epicentre of the nation’s outbreak.

Wednesday’s toll eclipsed American deaths on the opening day of the Normandy invasion during World War II: 2,500, out of some 4,400 allied deaths. And it topped the toll on September 11, 2001, as well: 2,977.

New cases per day are running at all-time highs of over 209,000, by Johns Hopkins’ count. And the number of people in the hospital with COVID-19 is setting records nearly every day.

A US government advisory panel convened on Thursday to decide whether to endorse mass use of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine to help conquer the outbreak that has killed close to 300,000 Americans. The meeting of outside advisers to the Food and Drug Administration was the next-to-last hurdle before the expected start of the biggest vaccination campaign in US history.

Depending on how fast the FDA signs off on the panel’s recommendation, shots could begin within days.

In St Louis, respiratory therapist Joe Kowalczyk said he has seen entire floors of his hospital fill up with COVID-19 patients, some of them two to a room. He said the supply of ventilators is dwindling, and the inventory is so thin that colleagues on one shift had to ventilate one patient by using a BiPAP machine, similar to the devices used to treat sleep apnea.

Twice during each of his graveyard shifts he checks all the supply closets to make sure he knows how many ventilators are available. When he goes home to sleep during the day at the end of his gruelling shifts, he sometimes has nightmares.

“I would be sleeping and I would be working in a unit and things would go completely wrong and I would shock myself awake. They would be very visceral and very vivid,” he said. “It would just really spook me.”

The grim figures from Wednesday led the usually stoic health director of the nation’s most populated county to become emotional. Barbara Ferrer described “a devastating increase in deaths” in Los Angeles County, with the total hitting 8,075 on Wednesday.

“Over 8,000 people who were beloved members of their families are not coming back,” Ferrer said, fighting back tears.

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