On Tuesday, the U.S. reached a grim pandemic milestone: 800,000 people have died of COVID-19 since the pandemic hit the country last year.
In the initial months of the pandemic, when the U.S. surpassed an already towering 100,000 deaths, The New York Times dedicated the front page of their May 24, 2020, paper to publishing every deceased person’s name with a brief description of their personalities – with the headline “An Incalculable Loss.” At the time, readers described the dedication as heart-wrenching.
The U.S. would double that figure, however, hitting 200,000 deaths in September 2020. States began easing pandemic restrictions in spite of public health officials’ warnings, just as masking became widespread to contain the virus. By then, President Donald Trump had baselessly said many times that the pandemic wasn’t bad in the U.S. compared to other countries (it was) and that it was turning around soon. (It didn’t.)
Public health figures worried that people would begin becoming numb to the loss.
With 800,000 deaths – four times the September 2020 mark – more people have died from COVID-19 than the total number of people who died in the American Civil War; it is, on average over two years, orders of magnitude higher than the deaths due to common causes like car crashes or the flu.
It is another dark milestone that marks the U.S.’s dismal response to the pandemic. In September 2021, with approximately 660,000 deaths, about 1 in 500 Americans had died from the virus. Now, that number is closer to 1 in 400.
This new landmark, as compiled by Johns Hopkins University, comes as the U.S. is once again experiencing a surge of cases. High vaccination rates and reimplemented mask mandates had driven down case rates this summer. But as more of the population became vaccinated, with about 17 percent of Americans still having not received a single dose of a COVID vaccine, cases began rising again in the fall – this time driven by the Delta variant and now, the nascent Omicron variant.
Despite the U.S.’s vaccine drive over the past year, most of those deaths have occurred this year. The gap between vaccination rates between counties that went for Trump in 2020 and counties that went for Joe Biden, meanwhile, is growing ever wider. Researchers have estimated that over 160,000 of the deaths that have occured since June were preventable if vaccine holdouts had gotten their jabs.
Biden encouraged Americans to get their shots on Tuesday, marking the “tragic milestone.”
“I urge all Americans: Do your patriotic duty to keep our country safe, to protect yourself and those around you, and to honor the memory of all those we have lost,” the president said.
As the more-transmissible Omicron spreads in the U.S., health experts are concerned that behavior during winter holidays will cause yet another spike in cases. Last year’s winter holidays were followed by a spike in the daily average of new cases to over 250,000. The nation is seeing another rise in cases now weeks after Thanksgiving.
Of the people who have been infected with Omicron, many of the cases have been mild so far – but many of the cases have also been of unvaccinated people. Research has suggested that receiving a booster shot could help vaccinated people from contracting the variant.
With no end in sight to the pandemic, some health experts are predicting that the U.S. will inevitably reach 1 million COVID deaths. One study estimated that the U.S. is closer to that milestone than official counts would suggest, with 100,000 COVID deaths uncounted due to reporting challenges.
One million deaths isn’t a milestone that has to be reached; indeed, countries with higher vaccination rates aren’t seeing nearly as many cases, showing that more deaths are preventable.