The United States surpassed a once-unthinkable milestone Monday as more than a half-million Americans have now died of COVID-19 during the pandemic. Put another way, the pandemic has killed roughly the same number of people that live in the city of Atlanta.

"It's so tough to just go back and try and do a metaphorical autopsy on how things went. It was just bad," said Dr. Anthony Fauci.

The US Covid-19 death toll is by far the highest of any country and more than double that of Brazil's, which according to Johns Hopkins University data, has the next highest number of virus-related fatalities. The US has also reported the most infections, with now more than 28 million Americans having tested positive for Covid-19. That number is more than double India's case count -- second in line, according to Johns Hopkins data -- and nearly triple that of Brazil.

Experts have pointed to several factors that may have contributed to a worsening pandemic, including a lack of clear messaging from the country's leadership, state and local leaders loosening restrictions too quickly, large holiday celebrations and continued resistance to face masks and other safety precautions.

"A mask is nothing more than a life-saving medical device, and yet it got categorized in all sorts of other ways that were not factual, not scientific and, frankly, dangerous," National Institutes of Health Director Dr. Francis Collins told "Axios on HBO" earlier this week. "I think you can make a case that tens of thousands of people died as a result."

While states across the country, including Georgia, continue reporting encouraging trends, experts caution now is absolutely not the time to let up, especially with the growing number of coronavirus variants circulating.

"The best way for us to get back to normal is to double down right now, not to throw off our masks, not to eat indoors, not to do other things that we know can risk reigniting outbreaks," said Dr. Craig Spencer, director of global health in emergency medicine at New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center.

'We've done worse than most any other country,' Fauci says as US marks grim Covid-19 death toll

Clinicians perform a tracheostomy on a patient in a COVID-19 ICU (Intensive Care Unit) at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in the Mission Hills neighborhood on February 17, 2021 in Los Angeles, California.

That means continuing to mask up, social distancing, avoiding crowded areas, regularly washing hands and practicing the safety measures that have so far worked to curb the spread of infections.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said during a Covid-19 briefing Monday that while numbers may be trending in the right direction, "cases, hospital admissions and deaths remain at very high levels." New cases have declined steadily for five weeks, Walensky said. But the US continues to add tens of thousands of new infections daily. February alone has seen more than two million new Covid-19 cases. Hospitalizations have plummeted since their January 6 peak of more than 132,400 Covid-19 patients. But more than 55,400 people remain hospitalized with the virus, according to the COVID Tracking Project. And every single day, hundreds of lives are lost to Covid-19. More than 1,300 deaths were reported Monday, according to Johns Hopkins data -- and more than 52,000 have been reported this month.

"While the pandemic is heading in the right direction there is still much work to do," Walensky said.

And for many people who survived a bout with the disease, symptoms continue to linger. In fact, Canadian researchers reported Monday that people's sense of smell and taste may not return for up to five months after becoming infected with coronavirus. A team at the University of Quebec surveyed more than 800 healthcare workers who tested positive for the virus. They ranked their sense of smell and taste on a scale from zero to 10 and some were asked to perform an at-home test to further evaluate these senses. During initial infection, more than 70% of those taking part in the survey reported losing their sense of smell and 65% reported losing their sense of taste, researchers said in preliminary results. Five months later, when they used an at-home test, 17% of the participants said they still had loss of smell and 9% of people had persistent loss of taste.

Meanwhile, as the US races to get more shots into arms, another vaccine could soon get the green light for the US market. Johnson & Johnson announced earlier this month it had applied for an emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration for its one-dose Covid-19 vaccine. On Friday, an FDA advisory group will discuss the company's application and data. Based on the adviser's guidance, the FDA may choose to give the vaccine the green light. Then, CDC advisers will discuss their own recommendations surrounding the vaccine's rollout, which will then have to be formally accepted by the CDC. The CDC announced an emergency meeting of its vaccine advisers from February 28 to March 1.

Copyright 2021 WGCL-TV (Meredith Corporation). All rights reserved.

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