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200,000 people in the U.S. have died of COVID-19

Pennsylvania and New Jersey are doing better than the nation as a whole, but the U.S. reached a tragic benchmark on Tuesday.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi kneels to look at small flags placed on the grounds of the National Mall by activists from the COVID Memorial Project to mark the deaths of 200,000 lives lost in the U.S. to COVID-19, Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2020 in Washington. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi kneels to look at small flags placed on the grounds of the National Mall by activists from the COVID Memorial Project to mark the deaths of 200,000 lives lost in the U.S. to COVID-19, Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2020 in Washington. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)Read moreJ. Scott Applewhite / AP

The United States reported its 200,000th confirmed coronavirus-related death on Tuesday, a gruesome benchmark that highlights the grip the virus maintains on the country and underscores the tragedy of the pandemic.

The death toll, higher than any nation in the world, has grown as the United States lags others in reopening and President Donald Trump’s handling of the crisis has become a key issue in the presidential election.

It took the country about three months to reach its first 100,000 recorded deaths, which came at the end of May after a first peak in the spring, and about four more months to log the second 100,000, which included a late-summer peak that began in July.

But a much smaller proportion of infected people have died since June than during the early months of the pandemic, something health officials have largely attributed to a significant increase in cases among young people, who are less likely to die from the virus. Most of the country’s 6.8 million confirmed cases have been recorded since the first 100,000 deaths.

Without referencing the 200,000 fatalities, Trump again praised the U.S. response to the pandemic Tuesday, telling the United Nations in an address that “we will defeat the virus.”

Meanwhile, Democrats and some health experts said he and his administration deserve blame for the severity of the pandemic, saying a swifter and more comprehensive national strategy would have saved lives.

“Their messages have been mixed, and that has really harmed our response as a country and many people have died as a result of it,” Philadelphia Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said Tuesday. “The federal government needs to be clear that the epidemic is still with us and the epidemic’s still deadly, and there are steps that we can and should all take to prevent the spread.”

The share of the country’s deaths occurring in Pennsylvania and New Jersey has dropped significantly since the spring: New Jersey made up about 12% of the country’s first 100,000 deaths but only about 2% of the second 100,000. Pennsylvania went from about 5% to about 2%, according to an analysis by The Inquirer.

In Pennsylvania, the average number of daily virus-related deaths has been around or below 20 since Aug. 20. In New Jersey, that number has been below 10 since Aug. 4. By Sunday, it was five deaths per day on average.

“We’re in as good a shape as any state in America,” New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said this week. “But [the virus] is with us.”

New Jersey still has the second-highest death toll in the country, with more than 16,000 lives lost. More than 8,000 people have died in Pennsylvania, a mark the state surpassed on Monday and the eighth-highest tally nationwide.

The 200,000 mark was reported by Johns Hopkins University, where researchers track and compile confirmed global and national cases and deaths based on local reports. Experts have said the actual death toll is likely higher because some COVID-19 infections go undiagnosed or unreported.

The United States makes up just 4% of the global population but accounts for about 21% of virus deaths worldwide and 22% of infections, Johns Hopkins data show.

A few countries, mainly in South America, have higher per-capita death tolls than the U.S. but have reported fewer deaths overall. In Italy, which had a surge in the early spring, the death toll is just under 36,000. France and Spain have reported between 30,000 and 32,000 deaths. The tolls in Germany and Canada have not reached 10,000 — not even 5% of the U.S. fatalities.

“It didn’t have to be this way,” Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.) said Tuesday, noting that the country still does not have a national testing strategy or “adequate supply” of personal protective equipment. “The Trump Administration’s failure to propose and implement an effective strategy to tackle this virus as well as the President’s failure to tell the American people the truth has driven the case and death numbers [this] high.”

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden said the steep death toll had not been inevitable.

“While other nations worked around the clock to get this virus under control, our president was too busy tweeting and golfing,” Biden tweeted. “Today is dark, but we will overcome this. Keep the faith.”

In his video address to the United Nations, Trump, who has consistently downplayed the severity of the virus, sought to blame China, where the virus originated, and told the U.N. to “hold China accountable for their actions.”

“We have waged a furious battle against the invisible enemy,” he said. “We will distribute a vaccine, we will defeat the virus, we will end the pandemic.”

On Monday night, Trump incorrectly told a campaign rally that the coronavirus only affects elderly people.

“It affects virtually nobody,” he claimed of people under 18. “It’s an amazing thing.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the longtime director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, refuted that misinformation Tuesday on CNN, noting that anyone with an underlying condition, even young people, is at high risk. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that children are "at risk for severe COVID-19″ and that while hospitalization is less likely among children than adults, one in three children hospitalized ends up in critical care.

Almost 7,400 minors in New Jersey and 15,000 in Pennsylvania have tested positive for the virus, according to state data. People under 50 account for more than half of all cases in both states.

» READ MORE: What to expect over the next six months of pandemic life, according to Philly experts

Despite national uncertainty as flu season looms, the number of daily deaths in both Pennsylvania and New Jersey has decreased overall since the beginning of the summer, and remained relatively low since July.

Asked about the country’s death toll, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf on Tuesday declined to comment on the federal government’s response but said the state’s strategy kept case numbers low compared with other parts of the country. A University of Pittsburgh study last week said Pennsylvania’s restrictions on gatherings and person-to-person contact in school, business, and entertainment venues saved thousands of lives.

“If you had taken Pennsylvania and expanded that to the nation, the nation would be in a better place,” Wolf told reporters at a briefing in Philadelphia.

» READ MORE: The people we've lost: Obituaries from the region

Still, the region remains on high alert. Daily new cases in Pennsylvania have risen overall since a low in mid-June — again averaging between about 750 and 850 new cases over the last few days — a level that has climbed from late August, when the average dropped to 600 a day.

» HELP US REPORT: Are you a health care worker, medical provider, government worker, patient, frontline worker or other expert? We want to hear from you.

In New Jersey, the average number of new daily cases has been about 450 or fewer in recent days and has not been as high as 600 since the start of June. The last month, though, has brought a steady increase in the daily number of new cases, from a low of 235 on Aug. 21 to 455 on Monday.

“I think you assume the worst and hope for the best,” Murphy said. “Assume it’s around us, and behave as through it is, and balance that with living our lives.”

Staff writers Laura McCrystal, Ellie Rushing, and Allison Steele contributed to this article.