Funeral home "running out of granite for headstones" as U.S. COVID-19 deaths reach 500,000

U.S. nears 500,000 deaths from coronavirus
U.S. nears 500,000 deaths from coronavirus 06:18

The number of lives lost from COVID-19 in the U.S. reached half a million Monday, with the real total likely even higher. The figure represents roughly one in 670 Americans who died of the virus since the pandemic began in early 2020.

The total reached 300,000 in the first 10 months of the pandemic, with another 200,000 more deaths just since mid-December.

"This is a horrible landmark that we've now reached," Dr. Anthony Fauci said on "CBS This Morning" Monday. "And even though the number are coming down, as you you've shown, on the deflection of cases and hospitalizations, we really can't declare victory quite yet."

U.S. reaches nearly 500,000 COVID-19 deaths 06:34

Despite the downward trends in cases and hospitalizations across the U.S., Los Angeles County — an area which had more cases than any county in the country — is still among the hardest-hit. The county coroner's office is housing 1,100 bodies on behalf of hospitals that are out of space.

As the country approached the grim milestone of 500,000 lives lost, CBS News' David Begnaud spoke to a Long Beach, California funeral director who told him he is busier now than at any other point during the pandemic.

"A year ago, people were complaining about not finding toilet paper and hand sanitizers," McKenzie Mortuary funeral director Ken McKenzie said. "This time of year, we're concerned because we're running out of granite for headstones."

As the final face that families see when a COVID-19 case ends in death, McKenzie said traffic to his funeral service has "grown to the point that we actually have to give a reservation code to a family just so that they could be seen."

"I'll tell you, the poor churches are so backlogged," he said.

When people call him, they usually interview him to decide if they want to use his services. But now, McKenzie said the first question people ask are whether he was taking any cases at all.

"The panic in their voice is just so sad," he said. 

One funeral that was being planned, McKenzie said, was for the sister of a previous victim.

"She gave COVID to her sister, now the sister died. We are mimicking them the same funeral," he said.

Three of the people McKenzie and his team cared for in death are members of one family — Luis, Gerry and Alma Rangel — who were all cremated and, according to Danny Rangel, "In a span of 16 days, all three of them passed due to COVID."

"My sister was alone. We had to watch her on an iPad take her last breath," Anna Rangel added. "I had to ask a doctor that I didn't know to hold her hand for me because I couldn't be there for her."

Ken McKenzie said it was the Rangel family walking into his funeral home with back-to-back deaths that broke him.

"I have never broke down. I'm supposed to be the professional," he said. "And it was yet another death with the same family, and I sat there and cried with them."

McKenzie  also shared a message for "trolls" who would dismiss his story as "fear mongering."

"When you say trolls, I like that you said that because that's to me someone that just is not informed, that's under a bridge, that's hiding, that doesn't want to face the truth. I'm hoping these words today hit home to those people," he said.

In addition to decreasing COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations nationwide, Dr. Fauci said the continued rollout of vaccines would be "the light at the end of the tunnel." 

However, he reflected on the high cost paid to reach this point.

"Back in the late winter and early spring of 2020, when we gave the modeling number of 240,000, people thought that we were being hyperbolic about that and somewhat alarmist," Fauci said. "Clearly that is not the case."

He urged Americans to not let up on protective measures like face masks, and asked how he himself was getting through the moment, Fauci said to focus on what the task is and how you get through it. "Don't celebrate and don't just give up," he said. "Just keep going."

President Biden plans to make remarks during a candle-lighting event at sundown to mark 500,000 American lives lost to COVID-19. The first lady, vice president and second gentleman will also participate.