Propelled in part by the wildly contagious omicron variant, the U.S. death toll from COVID-19 hit 900,000 on Friday, less than two months after eclipsing 800,000.
The two-year total, as compiled by Johns Hopkins University, is greater than the population of Indianapolis, San Francisco, or Charlotte, North Carolina.
The milestone comes more than 13 months into a vaccination drive that has been beset by misinformation and political and legal strife, though the shots have proved safe and highly effective at preventing serious illness and death.
“It is an astronomically high number. If you had told most Americans two years ago as this pandemic was getting going that 900,000 Americans would die over the next few years, I think most people would not have believed it,” said Dr. Ashish K. Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health.
He noted that most of the deaths happened after the vaccine gained authorization.
“We got the medical science right. We failed on the social science. We failed on how to help people get vaccinated, to combat disinformation, to not politicize this,” Jha said. “Those are the places where we have failed as America.”
Just 64% of the population is fully vaccinated, or about 212 million Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“We have underestimated our enemy here, and we have under-prepared to protect ourselves,” said Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein, a public health professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “We’ve learned a tremendous amount of humility in the face of a lethal and contagious respiratory virus.”
Nor is COVID-19 finished with the United States. Dr. Andrew Noymer, a professor of public health at the University of California at Irvine, predicted the U.S. will hit 1 million deaths by March 1.
“I think it’s important for us not to be numbed. Each one of those numbers is someone,” said the Rev. Gina Anderson-Cloud, senior pastor of Fredericksburg United Methodist Church in Virginia. “Those are mothers, fathers, children, our elders.”
While omicron is loosening its grip on the U.S., with new cases plunging in recent weeks and the number of Americans in the hospital with COVID-19 turning downward, deaths are running at more than 2,400 per day on average, the highest level since last winter.
Despite its wealth and its world-class medical institutions, the U.S. has the highest reported toll of any country, and even then, the real number of lives lost directly or indirectly to the coronavirus is thought to be significantly higher.
Experts believe some COVID-19 deaths have been misattributed to other conditions. And some Americans are thought to have died of chronic illnesses such as heart disease and diabetes because they were unable or unwilling to obtain treatment during the crisis.
Anderson-Cloud lost her dementia-stricken father after he was hospitalized for cancer surgery and then isolated in a COVID-19 ward. He went into cardiac arrest, was revived, but died about a week later.
She had planned to be by his bedside, but the rules barred her from going to the hospital. She wonders if his condition was made worse by his isolation. She wonders if he was scared. She wonders how many other cases like his there are.
“There are all these stories and all that pain,” she said.
COVID-19 has become one of the top three causes of death in America, behind the big two — heart disease and cancer. Noymer said if the mortality rate from COVID-19 continues, it will shave up to two years off U.S. life expectancy.
Ja said he and other medical professionals are frustrated that policymakers are seemingly running out of ideas for getting people to roll up their sleeves.
“There aren’t a whole lot of tools left. We need to double down and come up with new ones,” he said.
When the vaccine was rolled out in mid-December 2020, the death toll stood at about 300,000. It hit 600,000 in mid-June 2021 and 700,000 on Oct. 1. On Dec. 14, it reached 800,000.
It took just 51 more days to get to 900,000, the fastest 100,000-death jump since last winter.
The latest 100,000 deaths encompass those caused by both the delta variant and omicron, which began spreading rapidly in December and became the predominant version in the U.S. before the month was out.
While omicron has proved less likely to cause severe illness than delta, the sheer number of people who became infected with omicron contributed to the high number of deaths.
“We have been fighting among ourselves about tools that actually do save lives. Just the sheer amount of politics and misinformation around vaccines, which are remarkably effective and safe, is staggering,” Sharfstein said.
He added: “This is the consequence.”